-IC OR -ICAL: Unraveling Puzzling Word Endings

What is -IC OR -ICAL? In the world of scientific writing, precision and consistency are paramount. Every word, every punctuation mark, every detail matters. Among the nuances of scientific language lies a debate that has sparked discussions and left writers pondering: when to use ‘-ic’ or ‘-ical’ as word endings. In this article, we’ll dive into this grammatical conundrum, explore the historical perspectives, and provide guidance on how to navigate this linguistic labyrinth effectively.

The Great -ic or -ical Debate

Before we delve into the specifics, it’s essential to understand the core of this linguistic dilemma. The question at hand is whether to use ‘-ic’ or ‘-ical’ as suffixes when forming adjectives. For instance, should it be ‘biologic’ or ‘biological,’ ‘histologic’ or ‘histological,’ ‘physiologic’ or ‘physiological’?

Historical Perspectives

The roots of this debate reach back in time, with linguistic luminaries offering their insights. In 1969, Hans Marchand, a prominent linguist, championed the use of the shorter ‘-ic’ form. He argued that this form maintains a closer connection to the root meaning of the word, being a derivative of the noun form. On the other hand, the ‘-ical’ form, he posited, is more loosely related since it stems from the adjectival form, making it more general in nature.

James Elphinston, an 18th-century linguist, contributed another layer to the debate. He suggested that the ‘-ic’ form was suited for “solemn” subjects, while the ‘-ical’ form was reserved for more “familiar” ones. This led Marchand to surmise that the ‘-ic’ form found more extensive use in scientific contexts due to its brevity. In scientific discourse, where precision reigns, concise language is favored.

The Editorial Standpoint

To shed light on this debate from the editorial perspective, let’s consult some authoritative style guides:

  • Scientific Style and Format: This gold-standard reference for life sciences editing suggests a preference for the shorter ‘-ic’ form. It emphasizes consistency within a document and notes that British English tends to favor the ‘-ical’ form more than American English.
  • Council of Science Editors (CSE): In its latest edition, the CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers recommends maintaining consistency in using these suffixes throughout a document.
  • AMA Manual of Style: The American Medical Association’s style guide advises consulting dictionaries like Merriam-Webster, Stedman’s, Dorland’s, American Heritage, or Oxford English to determine the correct suffix for an adjectival form. It points out that the ‘-ical’ form may carry a meaning beyond that of the ‘-ic’ form but emphasizes maintaining consistency within the document.

The Dictionary Dilemma

While style guides provide general guidance, the choice of suffix may also depend on the dictionary you consult. For instance:

  • Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary considers ‘physiologic’ a variant of ‘physiological,’ and ‘biologic’ and ‘biological’ are regarded as interchangeable when pertaining to biology.
  • Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, on the other hand, provides distinct definitions for ‘physiologic’ and ‘physiological,’ considering them variants with different primary definitions.

The variance between dictionaries further complicates matters but underscores the importance of context in selecting the appropriate variant.

Navigating the Variants

Perhaps the most confounding aspect lies in choosing between variants that appear strikingly similar, such as ‘biologic,’ ‘biological,’ and ‘biologics.’ In certain contexts, ‘biologic’ aligns with ‘biologics,’ while in others, it leans toward ‘biological.’ Context reigns supreme in resolving this ambiguity. For example, in a report on rheumatoid arthritis treatment, ‘biologic’ likely pertains to a biological product. In contrast, in a discussion on protein structure, ‘biologic’ would lean towards ‘pertaining to biology.’

The Modern Landscape

Today, scientific writing accommodates both ‘-ic’ and ‘-ical’ forms, as evidenced by their widespread use. At SciTechEdit International, we often opt for the classic ‘-ic’ form, maintaining consistency. However, exceptions are made for UK English or client preferences, or when the context demands a more nuanced consideration of the variants.

In conclusion, while the -ic or -ical debate may persist, the guiding principle remains clear: precision, consistency, and context should dictate your choice. As scientific language evolves, our understanding of these nuances will adapt to ensure clarity and coherence in pursuing knowledge.

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