Call Me ‘Al’

Another confusing suffix

Is an appliance “electric” or “electrical”? Is Sarah Palin visiting “historic” sites or “historical” sites? Is being “politic” the same thing as being “political”?

Our tour of the wacky world of English continues.

The suffix “-al,” Webster’s New World College Dictionary (Fourth Edition) says, creates an adjective meaning “of, like, or suitable for.” That’s easy when dealing with some words: Take the noun “physic,” for example, which in olden days meant medical science, add the “-al” suffix and, voilĂ , you have “physical,” an adjective meaning “of natural science.” Uh, and also a noun for a medical examination.

Words created with the “-al” suffix can be nouns or adjectives, even though many of those adjectives were already adjectives before “al” was added.

Still with us?

Let’s deal with “electric,” something powered by electricity. It’s already an adjective meaning “of, like, or suitable for” electricity. So why do we need “electrical,” which WNW defines first as “electric”?

There’s a subtle distinction: An “electric kettle,” for example, actually uses electricity; an “electrical engineer” deals with electricity, but isn’t actually powered by it. (If robots do that job, should they be called “electric electrical engineers” or “electric engineers”?) Yet we say “electrical appliances” more than we say “electric appliances.”

We’ve discussed “historic” vs. “historical” before—“historic” means “of great moment,” while “historical” means simply “in the past”—but that hasn’t stopped either the Palin camp or media outlets from saying the tour was of “historical sites,” which would be any place where anything happened in the past, as opposed to “historic sites,” where major events occurred. (A few even called it a “historic tour,” which, of course, remains to be seen.)

On “politic,” it’s an adjective meaning “having practical wisdom; prudent; shrewd; diplomatic”; or “prudently or artfully contrived; expedient, as a plan, action, remark, etc.” Some things that are “politic” are also “political,” having to do with politics, but some “politic” things are merely well done.

It’s not just words ending with “c” that can have “-al” suffixes, of course—aberration, for example, becomes “abberrational,” and no one mixes those up—but that “-ical” ending, for some reason, adds to some of the confusion, probably because “ic” is already a suffix in its own right.

Of course, not all “-ic” words that can be formed with an “al” suffix are confused: Few people would call someone a “mechanic engineer,” for example. And some “ic” words that have “al” added are merely redundant: Is there a real difference between something that is “allegoric” and something “allegorical”? “Ironic” and “ironical”? “Parasitic” and “parasitical”?

Some of these formations are pretty comic…al

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,