Commonly Confused Suffixes: -ic vs. -ical
Words ending in “-ic” and “-ical”
The suffixes “-ic” and “-ical” both form adjectives meaning “of, resembling, characterized by, or relating to,” and they are notoriously difficult to distinguish. In many cases, words can be spelled with either ending with no change in meaning, with one version simply more common than the other; in other instances, the “-ic” and “-ical” versions will have similar but slightly different meanings, making each one more suited in particular contexts.
However, there are also words that will only take “-ic” or “-ical,” not both (or else have a variant spelling so uncommon as to be considered incorrect). While there are very few concrete “rules” dictating when this is the case, there are some general spelling conventions we can follow. We’ll begin by looking at these different conventions, and then we’ll compare words that can take both endings.
(For these spelling conventions, we’ll only be looking at existing base words that become or are associated with adjectives ending in “-ic”; things become much less predictable when the suffixes attach to incomplete Greek or Latin roots.)
When to use “-ic”
The suffix “-ic” is by far the more common of the two (“-ical” is really just a variant of “-ic”) and, as such, there are many more instances in which words will only end in “-ic.”
Use “-ic” with nouns ending in “-d,” “-de,” or “-dy”
Existing nouns that end in “-d,” “-de,” or “-dy” will almost always take “-ic” ending when becoming adjectives. Note that with both “-de” and “-dy,” though, the final vowel is replaced by “-ic,” so each of these words will end in “-dic.” Here are some of the most common examples:
- period→periodic (Periodical can also be used, but it more common as a noun referring to a publication issued at regular intervals)
One outstanding exception is the noun method, which becomes methodical. (Methodic is an accepted variant, but is very uncommon.)
Use “-ic” with nouns ending in “-ot” or “-ote”
There are not many nouns ending in “-ot” or “-ote” that become adjectives with “-ic,” but this is still a reliable convention when distinguishing “-ic” vs. “-ical.” As with “-de,” we drop the silent E and replace it with “-ic.” For instance:
(*Anecdotical does exist, but is less common. However, a third adjective, anecdotal, is much more common than the “-ic” or “-ical” forms.)
Use “-ic” with nouns ending in “-et” or “-ete”
We can also use “-ic” with adjectives ending in “-et” or “-ete” following the same spelling pattern as “-ot” and “-ote.”
- diet→dietetic (note the unique spelling change)
The most common exception to this spelling convention is the noun alphabet, which most commonly becomes alphabetical. Alphabetic can also be used, but it is typically associated with a slightly different meaning. We’ll look at this and other differentiated pairs further on.
Use “-ic” with nouns ending in “-esia” and “-esis”
In the examples we’ve looked at so far, the only spelling change we’ve encountered has been to drop silent E and replace it with “-ic” (with the exception of dietetic). With nouns ending in “-esia” and “-esis,” though, we make more substantial changes: “-s-” is replaced with “-t-,” and both “-ia” and “-is” become “-ic.”
However, there are two prominent exceptions to this rule that take “-ical” instead:
Note that the other spelling changes we make remain the same—we just add “-al” to the very end.
Use “-ic” with nouns ending in “-os” and “-osis”
We change these nouns in a similar fashion to those ending in “-esia” and “-esis.” For nouns ending in “-osis,” we once again replace “-s-” with “-t-” and “-is” with “-ic;” for nouns ending in “-os,” we simply replace “-s” with “-tic.” For example:
Use “-ic” with nouns ending in “-pathy”
Another very reliable convention is that nouns ending in “-pathy” can only take the “-ic” suffix. We typically just replace “-y” with “-ic,” forming “-pathic,” but a few words will become becomes “-pathetic” instead.
(*Empathic is an older term than empathetic, but the latter has become more common in everyday speech and writing, due in no small part to the structure and similar meaning of sympathetic. Empathic and empathetic are completely synonymous and equally acceptable, so choose whichever sounds better to your ear.)
Use “-ic” with nouns ending in “-ics” (usually)
The suffix “-ics” is actually a translation of the Greek suffix “-ika,” which is the “neuter plural” form of “-ikos,” from which “-ic” is derived. This neuter plural is used to form nouns from adjectives denoting particular activities or actions; professions, sciences, arts, or fields of study; or qualities or aspects. These “-ics” nouns are most often directly derived from adjectives ending in “-ic.” For instance:
However, despite the etymological link between “-ic” and “-ics,” there are also a few “-ics” nouns that are only (or much more commonly) associated with “-ical” adjectives, such as:
(*These words also have common “-ical” variants, but they have slightly different meanings. We’ll look at these and other such pairs of adjectives a little further on.)
When to use “-ical”
While “-ic” is much more common, there are a few cases in which “-ical” is used instead (or at least is greatly preferred).
Use “-ical” with nouns ending in “-ology”
One of the few spelling conventions that predictably indicates the use of “-ical” is when a noun ends in “-ology.” While there are often “-ic” variants, “-ical” is almost always much more common.
Here are some of the most common examples:
There is a notable exception to this convention, though: the noun apology becomes apologetic, not apological.
Use “-ical” with nouns ending in “-ic”
One possible reason why the “-ical” variant has arisen in the evolution of English (and caused such confusion between the two suffixes) is to create adjectival forms of nouns that naturally end in “-ic.” In such instances, we actually add a different suffix, “-al,” to the end of the noun, which in turn creates the “-ical” ending. For example:
However, this convention is only really helpful when we know for certain that a noun ending in “-ic” does not also function as an adjective. Quite a few words ending in “-ic” can function as either nouns or adjectives (e.g., academic, classic, magic, etc.), and, while several of these have “-ical” variants, many others do not. To make matters more complicated, the “-ic” adjective sometimes has a slightly different meaning than the “-ical” equivalent, a problem that exists in quite a few “-ic/-ical” pairs.
Adjectives with different meanings when ending in “-ic” and “-ical”
All word pairs ending in “-ic” and “-ical” overlap in meaning, but some of them have differentiated over time, becoming more nuanced and specific in their modern usage. We’ll look at some of the most common of these pairs, with brief explanations of how their meanings differ. (Note that we’ll be looking at very abbreviated definitions, so the examples below may not cover every possible meaning of a given word.)
|alphabetic vs. alphabetical|
|Alphabetic and alphabetical are synonymous, with two core meanings: 1) “arranged according to the order of the alphabet,” and 2) “characterized by or relating to the alphabet.” However, alphabetical, which is more common overall, is usually used in the context of the first meaning, as in:“The guidebook has the best places to visit listed in a series of alphabetical entries.”Alphabetic, on the other hand, is nowadays more typically used in relation to the second meaning, “characterized by or relating to the alphabet,” as in:“English features an alphabetic writing system, whereas Chinese has a logographic writing system.”|
|classic vs. classical|
|Classic is the more broadly applicable of this pair. It is generally used to describe something as being representative of the standard, traditional, or perfected norm; of the highest class or quality; or having lasting significance or worth. For instance:“The novel uses classic tropes established in film noir.”“Their victory was largely due to a classic performance by their quarterback.”“We’ve designed the rooms with a classic aesthetic that is both classy and comfortable.”Classic can also be used as a noun to describe an instance or example of these descriptions (as in, “The company’s latest product is an instant classic.”). When pluralized as classics, it can refer to the literature and/or languages of ancient Greece or Rome.Classical can only be used as an adjective and is usually used more narrowly, referring to the art or culture of Ancient Greece or Rome, or the music produced in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. For example:“He is a professor of classical literature.”“I only listen to the works of classical pianists.”|
|comic vs. comical|
|As an adjective, comic is most commonly used to mean “of, characterized by, or having to do with comedy,” as in:“The actress has incredible comic timing.”“Some of the best comic writers in the business work on this show.”Comic can also simply mean “funny or humorous,” but this definition is much more commonly associated with the term comical instead:“He had a knack for making comical facial expressions that delighted his audience.”“Her unscripted comments were undeniably comical.”Unlike comic, comical can also have a negative connotation as well, indicating that something is ludicrous or pitiful in the way it provokes amusement. For example:“Their attempts to establish credibility were downright comical.”“He had a look of almost comical dejection when I told him the job had already been filled.”|
|economic vs. economical|
|Economic is used to describe that which is characterized by or relating to the economy, as in:“The president’s proposed economic reform is being scrutinized by Congress.”“It took several years for the country to recover from the economic downturn.”Economical, on the other hand, more often relates to being efficient, frugal, or prudent (with money or another resource):“With six children under one roof, our parents were forced to be economical early on.”“The interior of the house was economical in its design, taking as much advantage of the limited space as possible.”|
|electric vs. electrical (vs. electronic)|
|Electrical very broadly means “of, concerned with, operated by, or producing electricity.” For example:“I need to take a safety course before I can operate any of the electrical equipment at work.”“My sister is studying to be an electrical engineer.”Electric is used to talk about specific machines that are powered by electricity or musical instruments amplified by electronic devices:“I love my electric car, but it can’t go very fast on the highway.”“We always rely on our electric blankets during winter.”“Of all things, my brother wants an electric harp for his birthday.”Finally, electronic refers to devices in which electrical currents are passed through and controlled by mechanical components such as transistors and circuitry. More recently, it has been used to identify information and data that can be sent, stored, or created using electronic equipment and systems. For example:“Many everyday items in modern houses have been turned into electronic gizmos, from the thermostat to the refrigerator to the toaster.”“The advent of electronic mail (‘e-mail’) completely changed the way we do business now.”The term electronics is also commonly used as a collective noun indicating devices such as phones, computers, or video game systems that are powered by electronic components, as in, “The store specializes in electronics sold at discounted rates.”|
|fantastic vs. fantastical|
|Fantastic once had the primary meaning of “existing in or having to do with fantasy or the imagination” or “strange and fanciful in appearance or conception.”However, in modern English, fantastic more commonly means “exceptionally good, wonderful, or desirable.” For instance:“My sister received some fantastic news last night: she got the job!”“I thought the movie was really fantastic.”(Note that some sources still consider this usage to be informal, so fantastic may not be the best word to use in formal speech or writing.)Fantastical retains the older sense of fantastic, as in “The story is full of many fantastical creatures and environments.” It is a useful alternative when one wishes to describe something as “of or relating to fantasy” without causing confusion with the term fantastic.|
|graphic vs. graphical|
|Graphic and graphical are synonyms that both broadly mean “of, relating to, or represented by writing, pictures, or mathematical graphs,” as in:“Please provide some graphic/graphical representations of the data for the board meeting, Jim.”“It is the earliest language we know of that used graphic/graphical symbols to create a system of writing.”However, there are certain nouns that will usually take one form over the other. There are no clear rules governing these; they’ve just become established over time:“I’m studying graphic design in college.”“All modern smartphones use a ‘graphical user interface,’ meaning you interact with images to control what the phone does.”“I’m currently working on a new graphic novel.”“We’re working on a new probabilistic graphical model for our work in machine learning.”It’s also important to note that graphic has a common secondary meaning not shared by graphical: “vivid and explicit in representation,” usually implying or referring to sexual or violent content. For example:“Please don’t use such graphic language when the children are present.”“These films are a bit too graphic for my taste.”Finally, we also use the collective noun graphics to refer to digital images created using computer software, as in:“The movie had spectacular graphics, but its story was a mess.”|
|historic vs. historical|
|While historic and historical are technically full synonyms, they have fairly distinct meanings in modern English.Historic primarily means “influential on, important to, or notable in the course of history.” For example:“The historic accord between the two nations governed their relations for decades to come.”“In 1903, the Wright brothers took a historic flight in the world’s first airplane.”Historical, on the other hand, more generally means “of, relating to, based on, or concerned with past events,” as in:“Many historical documents about the town’s past residents were lost in the fire.”“The film has tried to achieve an impressive degree of historical accuracy.”“Her new historical novel is set in Russia in 1762.”|
|lyric vs. lyrical|
|Lyrical means “expressing or characteristic of deep emotional significance or enthusiasm.” For example:“His lyrical performance moved me so deeply that I felt compelled to weep and laugh at the same time.”“Though the book is historical non-fiction, the author has such a beautiful command of the language that many passages are downright lyrical.”Lyric, when it functions as an adjective, is usually related to a particular category of poetry, in which emotions and thoughts are expressed through airy, songlike words. For example:“As modernism and postmodernism have risen to prominence, lyric poets of the old style have become few and far between.”More often, though, lyric appears as the singular form of the noun lyrics, meaning “the words of a song.” For example:“I had my favorite lyric from their song printed onto a poster.”“Jess and Michael both seem to know the lyrics to every song on the radio.|
|magic vs. magical|
|The noun magic most commonly means “the process of using charms, rituals, spells, etc. to produce supernatural effects” or refers to such supernatural effects themselves. As an adjective, magic means “of, related to, or characterized by such supernatural elements or effects.” For example:“With his magic wand, he conjured up a fierce otherworldly creature.”“The world is populated with many magic spirits.”The adjective magical can also carry this same meaning, but it is less common than magic. Instead, it is more often used to refer to something as being “exceptionally enchanting, wonderful, or exciting,” as in:“Samantha and I had a magical weekend together in Paris.”“It has been magical seeing such a strong reaction to our film.”|
|mythic vs. mythical|
|Mythical means “of or existing in a myth,” and, by extension, “imaginary, fictitious, or fantastical.” For example:“People still believe the mythical sasquatch exists, roaming the North American woodlands undetected.”(This is entirely synonymous with the word mythological, but mythical is more common.)Mythic can also carry the above meaning, but it also has an exclusive definition of its own: “having the characteristics or nature of a myth.” If something is mythic, rather than being fictitious or imaginary, it is elevated to the level of a legend in its scope or impact. Because it is more associated with real occurrences, it is also useful when describing something that has to do with the nature of mythology itself. For example:“My father’s ability to attract friends and inspire confidence was almost mythic.”“We can see in his novel the same mythic structures employed by Homer and Virgil.”|
|optic vs. optical|
|The adjective optic is usually used to refer specifically to the eye or to the physical process of sight. Perhaps its most common usage in modern English is in the term “optic nerve” (the nerve that carries visual information from the eye to the brain).Optical is much broader in its definition. While it can also relate to the eye or the sense of sight, it can also mean “of, producing, or related to visible light; designed or constructed to assist sight; having to do with the field of optics.” For instance:optical zoomoptical illusionoptical fiberoptical instrumentsoptical defectsoptical astronomy|
|politic vs. political|
|The adjective political broadly means “of, involved, in, characterized by, or relating to politics,” and it is by far the most common of the two terms. For example:“The company’s political contributions have been heavily scrutinized in the wake of the scandal.”“Her political career peaked in the late 2000s, but she first ran for office back in 1983.”Politic originally meant the same thing, but has now become archaic in that sense. Though uncommon in everyday speech or writing, it now means “pragmatic, shrewd, prudent, or judicious.” For example:“His politic choice of investments did not surprise me, for my brother has never been one to gamble on uncertainty.”|
Adjectives ending in “-ic” and “-ical” with no difference in meaning
Although there are many adjectives with “-ic/-ical” variants of slightly different meaning, there are many more that are merely synonyms, with one form being more common than the other.
We’ll look at some of these pairs below, with the more common spelling highlighted in bold. Be aware that this is not an exhaustive list, though; it is just meant to represent the pairs that are most likely to come up in everyday speech and writing.
(*Geographic and geographical are about equally common.)
Adjectives ending in “-ic” and “-ical” both become “-ically”
Finally, it’s worth noting that when an adjective ending in “-ic” is made into an adverb by adding “-ly,” we almost always change “-ic” to the “-ical” variant first. Since this applies to nearly every “-ic” adjective, let’s just look at some common examples:
However, there are two words ending in “-ic” that will simply use “-icly” as adverbs: chicly and publicly. (While publically is listed in some dictionaries as a variant spelling, it is extremely uncommon and will be regarded as incorrect by most readers.)