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I sing the body electric – or electrical?

The Monitor's grammarian wonders about the difference between the words electric and electrical.

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Every editor knows the feeling: On about the umpteenth reading of a document, when I'm just about ready to hit the button, there suddenly emerges an issue that hadn't crossed my mind before. It would be hyperbolic to call them little land mines of prose. But there they are, lying concealed through one read after another, until – boom! – you have to pay attention.

The issue the other day was: Am I sure I know the difference between electric and electrical?

The difference between historic and historical is straightforward. The first refers to that which "makes history": a stock market near its "historic" high. The second means of or pertaining to the historical record, as in "the historical Jesus" – Jesus as history, rather than faith, records him.

Economic and economical are a similar pair, but the nuances are a little trickier. Economic generally means related to economics or to "the economy," in a broad sense. "It was not in his economic interest to take the job," or "The economic situation there is not good." Economical, applied to things, means inexpensive or cost-effective. It also applies to people who are thrifty or smart with their money. Thus, an economical car, or an economical shopper.

But the differences between the two adjectives disappear in their shared adverb, economically. "While they were in graduate school, they lived very economically." Or, "That's an economically depressed area." So much for nuance.

Back to our electrical question: Electric refers to something that is actually electric, or is operated by electricity: an electric charge, an electric train.

Electric is also the form for metaphorical uses: "The atmosphere of the room was electric," for instance, or Walt Whitman's "I Sing the Body Electric."


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