Preservation Grammar: Historic v. Historical

The grammar topic for today: When it is correct to use “historic” or “historical”?

How often do you come across “historical preservation” as opposed to “historic preservation?” I see this quite often, whether casually or in presentations. If you consider the laws and the basis for the field, the proper term is “historic” not “historical”. For all other purposes, what’s the difference?I found the best explanation I’ve seen so far via Grammar Girl.

You can read Grammar Girl’s response or listen to the podcast about Historic v. Historical here. In brief, historic is something significant to our past whereas historical is something that is old and not necessarily important. If you think back to the Old House v. Historic House discussion, you’ll recall that historic means significant. Significant means that a building, structure, object, district or site is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Old is simply old and not important or significant.

Now, how to remember this? From Grammar Girl:

William Safire said something that might help you remember the difference: “Any past event is historical, but only the most memorable ones are historic” (3). I’ve also created an odd memory trick to help you: You can remember the meanings of these two words by thinking that “ic” is “important,” and they both start with i, and “al” is “all in the past,” and those both start with a.

Why does this matter? Should you correct people who say historical preservation as opposed to historic preservation? (You should if it’s an appropriate occasion only.) Think of it this way: historical preservation leans toward the stereotype of “saving everything” as opposed to preserving, documenting, incorporating the significant (i.e. historic) elements of the past.

What do you think?

Old House v. Historic House

Is that an old house? Is that a historic house? Is that the same question?

Well, they are often used interchangeably in passing, casual conversations, but actually there is a definite distinction between the two: old & historic.

Work in historic preservation is defined from the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966 (since amended) (legal code 16 U.S.C 470). In the law, “historic property” or “historic resource” means any prehistoric or historic district, site, building, structure, or object included in, or eligible for inclusion on the National Register, including artifacts, records, and material remains related to such a property or resource.  In other words, a “historic” house would be one only if it is on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Historic means “historically significant.”

The brief explanation of how properties are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places is that they (generally) must be at least 50 years old and they must have contributed to or played a significant role in national heritage. The longer explanation involves four criteria for evaluation and seven criteria considerations, which can be read here or in National Register Bulletin 15. A side note, most houses are not on the National Register, although they may be listed on a local or state register.

What about the definition for old? That can be a house that has reached the 50 year mark, but is not historically significant. Of course, that is not the say the house is insignificant to its occupants, but in terms of the National Register and the NHPA, it doesn’t count. The distinction is made to assist rulings of the NHPA as well as to assist with tax credits from the National Park Service.

While “old” and “historic” could certainly be discussed more, those are the easy definitions. Still, old houses, even if not historic by NHPA standards, are still important to our heritage and deserve to be loved and maintained. A building not on the National Register doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not eligible – maybe it hasn’t been nominated. If research reveals arguments for national significance, give it a try!

Any other thoughts on the definitions of old or historic?