Wednesday 4 April 2007

On a problematic(al) issue

A correspondent from abroad writes to express his puzzlement over the difference between such linguistic terms as alphabetic and alphabetical, analytic and analytical, diacritic and diacritical. He asks if these are synonyms, and if so, is there a way of deciding which to use?

The issue goes well beyond the terminology of linguistics: examples from other domains include mystic(al), poetic(al), ironic(al), philosophic(al), rhythmic(al), astronomic(al)... Usually there's no difference in meaning, but there may be a stylistic or regional preference, and only an up-to-date dictionary or usage guide (such as Pam Peters' Cambridge Guide to English Usage: see the entry at -ic/-ical) will help. Where the two forms are synonymous, people generally opt for the shorter alternative; but the extra -al syllable can sometimes produce a more euphonious utterance, avoiding a clash of consonants or promoting a better rhythm (compare geographic contours vs geographical contours).

In a few cases, the meanings have diverged: electric and electrical now have different ranges of usage, as do comic and comical and some others. The -al ending usually suggests a broader meaning - more things are 'comical' than are 'comic'. Occasionally, the meanings are very different - notably economic and economical, historic and historical, politic and political. Usage essays in dictionaries and usage guides often focus on the differences.

In a specialist domain, the only thing one can do is identify and follow majority usage. In linguistics these days it is phonetic, phonological, grammatical, and semantic (but you will find the alternatives in older usage). It is sometimes possible to tell the difference between a specialist and a non-specialist by the ending: those who talk about syntactical structures or semantical problems or linguistical issues are hardly likely to be specialists in linguistics.


Amy Hemmeter said...

I'm just curious- why is it that it is relatively easy to recognize accents when a person is talking, but very difficult to do so when a person is singing?

DC said...

It's all to do with vowel values. The bulk of the identity of a regional accent lies in the vowels, not the consonants. Both vowel quality and quantity (length) are involved. With classical singing, vowels are articulated more openly than normal and with greater length, so regional distinctions are readily obscured. I remember once reading a singing teacher who talked about the 'megaphone effect' achieved by lowering the jaw and protruding the lips.

There's no such thing as a voice without an accent, of course, so what is happening in classical singing is a levelling of different accents into a neutral 'singing voice'. But it is certainly possible still to make regional distinctions, as one does hear from time to time in operas. And in some singing genres, such as country and western, an audible accent is common enough.

AlanAJ said...

There is a brief discussion on the -ic, -ical question at

Anonymous said...

I have an example that isn't an "ic" vs "ical" but rather an "ance" vs "ation". What, if any, is the difference between "tolerance" and "toleration"?

As far as I know, tolerance is the commoner word (but I may be wrong). But I'm pretty sure "toleration" exists and has a meaning too. Can you confirm this? Are they synonymous?

DC said...

In the interests of keeping a thread coherent, I'll do a separate post on this.