Driving south on I-5 from Vancouver, B.C., to Seattle recently, our car passed several signs for sites related to Puget Sound history, directing drivers to various historic districts or historical parks and museums. As our region’s duly appointed deputy of the Proofreader General of the United States (PGUS), I wondered which of these collaborations of local groups and state Department of Transportation sign-makers were grammatically accurate. Should it be historic or historical, or are the two similar words interchangeable?
According to the Associated Press Stylebook, “a historic event is an important occurrence, one that stands out in history. Any occurrence in the past is a historical event.” But should the same rule apply to buildings, neighborhoods or districts? Are these places merely old, or did something significant occur there? The Grammarist website notes, “Buildings, villages, districts and landmarks deemed historically important are often described as historic because they are historically significant in addition to being of or related to history. Societies dedicated to recognizing and preserving these things are called historical societies because they are concerned with history but not momentous in themselves.” So a historical society might be responsible for maintaining a historic site. Got it?
The best and most thorough discussion of proper usage of historic or historical that I’ve found is this one. Its author points out the other wrinkle in this conundrum: Is it correct to put “a” or “an” in front of historic or historical? (Unless your audience is British, there’s little debating “a” is the correct way to go.)
So what about those I-5 road signs? As the late columnist and linguist William Safire said, “Any past event is historical, but only the most memorable ones are historic.” So when it comes to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Seattle, the Fairhaven Historic District in Bellingham and the “historic waterfront” of LaConner, we’ll let the tourists judge for themselves. If they can’t make up their minds, hire an editor.