Grammar Snob: Presidential election edition

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!

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  • Language is shaped by two competing forces. Innovative thinkers sometimes articulate a novel idea so clearly that an enduring label attaches. This is how a language grows. Intellectually clumsy people often botch the articulation of widely familiar ideas until some simplification occurs. This consolidates a tongue. Whether the interplay of these two forces is or ain’t a good thing I’ll leave for readers to decide.

    A quick check suggests the phrase “shoo in” has its roots in horse racing corruption. Personally, I always thought it was the cumulative byproduct of so many broadcast journalists failing to get their mouths around the phrase “sure win.” In this uncertain election cycle, that cringeworthy phrase didn’t come up often in coverage. Yet even if “shoo in” was not born in the style of present tense historicalness, it still rubs me the wrong way. I don’t understand why our nations can’t uphold much higher standards of elocution in media talking heads, since clearly there are no other objective standards used to filter out the riffraff from work in journalism/punditry.


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  • As long as we’re being picky, isn’t this a case of being a Semantics snob rather than a Grammar snob, since “historical” and “historic” are both grammatically correct in the context, but it’s the meaning of the two terms which is in question? 😉


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  • What bugs me is that we’re supposed to used “an” in front of “historic” and “historical.” Since in Canada at least we all seem to pronounce the “h” in “historic,” saying “an historic” seems snotty and useless.

    I also want to say “a unique” but I’ve seen people use “an unique.” I’ve found one grammar page that says “a unique” is correct and an exception to the “an” before words which start with a vowel (university and European are also listed as exceptions). My guess is they’re exceptions because they are pronounced with a “yuh” (or y-sound).

    But of course if that’s the case, then it should be “a historic event” and not “an historic event” since, not being British, we say voice the H in historic.


  • @Kalev – According to Grammar Girl, you use “an” when a word starts with a vowel sound (so European, unique, & university, which don’t start with a vowel sound, get an “a”). So, as you say, a British person would pronounce historic as “‘istoric”, so they’d say “an historic,” whereas an American would pronounce it “historic”, so they should say “a historic”… I feel like I kinda minimize the “h” myself, so I go with “an historic.”


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