Verbal Energy

I sing the body electric – or electrical?

The Monitor's grammarian wonders about the difference between the words electric and electrical.

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Every editor knows the feeling: On about the umpteenth reading of a document, when I'm just about ready to hit the button, there suddenly emerges an issue that hadn't crossed my mind before. It would be hyperbolic to call them little land mines of prose. But there they are, lying concealed through one read after another, until – boom! – you have to pay attention.

The issue the other day was: Am I sure I know the difference between electric and electrical?

The difference between historic and historical is straightforward. The first refers to that which "makes history": a stock market near its "historic" high. The second means of or pertaining to the historical record, as in "the historical Jesus" – Jesus as history, rather than faith, records him.

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Economic and economical are a similar pair, but the nuances are a little trickier. Economic generally means related to economics or to "the economy," in a broad sense. "It was not in his economic interest to take the job," or "The economic situation there is not good." Economical, applied to things, means inexpensive or cost-effective. It also applies to people who are thrifty or smart with their money. Thus, an economical car, or an economical shopper.

But the differences between the two adjectives disappear in their shared adverb, economically. "While they were in graduate school, they lived very economically." Or, "That's an economically depressed area." So much for nuance.

Back to our electrical question: Electric refers to something that is actually electric, or is operated by electricity: an electric charge, an electric train.

Electric is also the form for metaphorical uses: "The atmosphere of the room was electric," for instance, or Walt Whitman's "I Sing the Body Electric."

Electrical comes into play for things "about" electricity, so to speak: Electrical wiring, electrical engineering. The companies that sell items to electricians are typically called "electrical supply" stores.

Perhaps as a native speaker of English – my whole life! – I should be embarrassed to admit this, but it can be fun to explore questions like these in forums on English as a second language. Such forums are full of the contributions of people who are very bright and look at English with fresh eyes.

One of the questions I found on an ESL forum while researching what we might call the "icky" adjectives was "Why is there no publical?"

There used to be, but it has disappeared, as tragical, for instance, has done, although it lives on concealed within the adverb tragically. Most of the "icky" adjectives add "ally" to become adverbs – which is why editors must always look out for the misspelled "publically."

But at another level, the answer may be just "because there isn't."

This may sound like the last-resort response of the exasperated parent, "Because I said so, that's why." But in language, "It just is (or isn't)" is often the right response. However much it makes us professional wordsmiths gnash our teeth and tear our hair to have to acknowledge this, over time, the language is what the people say it is. They vote with their mouths and their scribbling hands and tapping digits on keyboards of all shapes and descriptions.

If English ever really needs a publical, it will get one.

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