Is it ‘historic’ or ‘historical’? A look at adjectives and prepositions that cause confusion

Do you wait for someone to show up, but wait on a customer? Get up to speed on the definitive answer—if there is one—in this attempt to tackle common puzzlements.

The King of Siam could very well have been referring to the joys of English — a language of 3,000 rules and 20,000 exceptions, many of which can only be explained by “well, that’s just the way it is.”

If English is not your first language and you find it, at times, a puzzlement, you may take solace in knowing that it continues to mystify us natives. In fact, even the experts continue to learn.

Here are a couple of puzzlements that some of my colleagues and I have attempted to tackle, along with my earnest attempts to rationalize. As always, you’re welcome to chime in.

The suffix –al: mathematic vs. mathematical; geometric vs. geometrical; historic vs. historical, etc.

The way I see it, at least part of the confusion with adjectives, such as geographical, historical and the like, is the presence of not one but two suffixes — ic and al, which both mean of or pertaining to.

Grammarians may contend that there is a difference between historic and historical (the former meaning something famous, such as a historic document; the latter referring to something that is based on history, such as a historical account), despite Webster’s claim that, in some contexts, they’re interchangeable.

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