The Logic Behind “-logic” and “-logical”

By Mark Nichol

Why does the English language allow one to select between, say, biologic and biological, neurologic and neurological, and technologic and technological? Why complicate our language lives with the choice? Is the universe malicious?

According to one study, the suffix -ic is preferred over the variant -ical by a ratio of 8 to 1. Curiously, however, when -log precedes the suffix, the ratio is reversed. (In another example of this phenomenon, called potentiation, -ness is much more common than -ity — except when the suffix is preceded by –able.) But that doesn’t answer my questions.

For the most part, the choice seems to be personal or institutional preference, because there’s usually no distinction — no logic, for example, to selection of -logic or -logical. For example, the style guide of the American Academy of Neurology prefers the shorter form, but in other contexts, neurological prevails.

One researcher points out that, as you might have guessed, -ic (from the Greek suffix -ikos) was the original suffix; -ical, formed by adding the French suffix -al, came later. For the most part, usage organically caused a divergence, so that, for example, a historic occasion is memorable, whereas a historical occasion is one that merely occurred.

For another example, economic refers to economics, while economical is used more generally to refer to the quality of economy. In this case, as with some others, the former can mean the same thing as the latter but seldom does. Comic and comical, and geometric and geometrical, are two of the many other sister terms with both (occasionally) identical and (usually) distinctly different meanings.

Sometimes, one form predominates for obvious reasons (fanatical, for example, developed in favor of fanatic because the original form came to be applied as a noun), but in other cases, the variation — for reasons seldom clear — triumphs (botanical versus botanic, for example.)

So, which form should you use in a given context? The dictionary is helpful for most -ic/-ical debates, but the -logic/-logical (and -logous!) issue is an outlier. In such cases, consult an authoritative source.

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7 Responses to “The Logic Behind “-logic” and “-logical””

  • Mary

    Interesting, as always, Mark, thanks for the discussion. I love these fine distinctions — our language is so subtle, offers so many gradations of meaning, what a joy! The uses of ‘classic’ and ‘classical’ demonstrate the point.

    ‘Classical’ has a few very specific meanings. It can refer to classical antiquity, those guys who together, over the course of several centuries, produced a body of work known to us now as the ‘classics.’ It can also mean a stage within the common practice period of music (or musical?) composition, i.e., the late 18th and early 19th centuries, after the Baroque and before the Romantic. And, of course, it’s a catchall word describing virtually any music that isn’t ‘popular,’ from Monteverdi to John Cage (although there are those disputatious souls who deny that what Cage ‘wrote’ was ‘music’).

    ‘Classic,’ on the other hand, is used as a synonym for ‘vintage’ — classic cars, classic rock, classic clothing styles. A classic dress might be something with big shoulder pads, whereas a classical dress might resemble a toga. Classic can also mean ‘typical,’ or ‘characteristic’ — a classic and oft-told tale.

    Thanks again, for the food for thought!

  • Barbara McNichol

    Mark
    Thanks for this insightful discussion. It seems well researched and well articulated. Could I have your permission to reprint it on my blog, giving you/Daily Writing Tips full credit?
    Thanks. I appreciate what you do to clarify our language every day.

  • Dale A. Wood

    In the field of electricity, in many cases the adjectives “electric” and “electrical” are absolutely interchanceable. Examples of these include the following:
    electric transformer and electrical transformer
    electric power and electrical power
    electric conductor and electrical conductor
    electric generator and electrical generator
    electric substation and electrical substation

    In other cases, one or the other of these words has dominated the other one our of use. For example:
    electric motor, electric current, electric field, electric razor, electric shock, electric switch, electric voltage,
    electrical engineer, electrical communications, electrical resistance, electrical science, electrical technology, electrical technologist.

    Therefore, in many cases one has to know the context in order to choose “electric” or “electrical”.

    In contrast, “mechanic” has become a noun, and that has left only “mechical” as the adjective.

    Also, “electromagnetic” is sometimes necessary as an adjective, and the word “electromagnetical” does not exist.

  • Mary

    Hi, Dale —

    ‘In contrast, “mechanic” has become a noun, and that has left only “mechical” as the adjective.’ — Except, of course, for the ‘rude mechanicals’ found in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’

  • ApK

    “In such cases, consult an authoritative source.”

    As a suggestion for a future article on research or journalism, I be interested in hearing tips on how to identify an authoritative source on such things.

    Sometimes, the experts on subject matter may not be expert in the use of the vocabulary (I think of great musicians who may not even be literate), or experts in language and style who might not understand distinctions in meaning between highly technical terms.

    I love when you can just check with a standards body or the original creator of a term, but it’s not always possible.

  • venqax

    So, it can be either popsicle, or popsic– lollypopologically speaking.

  • Bill

    I prefer to use “logical” to express quality (like an adjective) and “logic” to express words “as nouns”: “It’s logic!” or “the logic concerning your thoughts…”. The same with “economical” and “economic”: “The economic scenario…” or “Economical people tends to…”
    In other words, I mean: “Logical logic” but of course it doesn’t exist!

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