OK, I have to say this because it’s been driving me crazy. The election of the first African-American president is an historic event. I can’t count how many times I have read and heard in the last two days that it was an historical event. Now, technically it is true that it was an historical event, in that it occurred in the past. But the people saying/writing this are trying to convey that it was a signficant event in history, not merely an event that occurred prior to today.
Historical means something that happened in the past. So, yeah, the election of the first African-American president was an historical event because it happened last Tuesday. I also drank a cup of coffee on Tuesday, so that’s an historical event too.
Historic means something that happened in the past that is significant. Like, say, the election of the first African-American president. The fact that I drank a cup of coffee on Tuesday, while historical, not so much on the historic.
The American Hertiage Dictionary notes:
Historic and historical have different usages, though their senses overlap. Historic refers to what is important in history: the historic first voyage to the moon. It is also used of what is famous or interesting because of its association with persons or events in history: a historic house. Historical refers to whatever existed in the past, whether regarded as important or not: a minor historical character. Historical also refers to anything concerned with history or the study of the past: a historical novel; historical discoveries. While these distinctions are useful, these words are often used interchangeably, as in historic times or historical times.
But just because they are often used interchangeably doesn’t mean they should be used interchangeably. People use “it’s” and “its” interchangeably, but that doesn’t make it right!
The only reason I even know the difference between these two1 is because of Grammar Girl’s recent podcast on exactly this topic. If I hadn’t heard that, I would never have known the difference. But since I do, it’s driving me crazy!
1Historic and historical, not it’s and its. I’ve know the difference between it’s and its for a long, long time. Also, there, their and they’re! And to, too, and two!