“Classic” vs. “classical” in English

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more.

The word “classic” can be either an adjective or a noun. There’s a beautiful and witty quote by Mark Twain explaining quite well what the noun means:

‘Classic’ - a book which people praise and don’t read.
Mark Twain

A “classic” is a book/song/film or any other piece of art which is considered to have set a high quality standard in its respective genre. Much less frequently, it is used also for the author of such a work. Similarly, “a classic thing” is something that is in some way typical for its class (e.g. “a classic mistake”).

“Classical” means “traditional” or “being present for a long time”. In science, for example, a “classical theory” is a theory that has well established itself as a useful scientific theory, although it often contrasts with another “modern theory” which is able explain more than the classical one. “Classical music” refers to well established music genres of the past centuries.

A classic example of the distinction between “classic” and “classical” is “a classic/al example”. “A classical example” is not strictly speaking wrong; it means an example that has been used for a long time. But what you mean 99% of the time is “a classic example” which is the same as “a typical example”. See the following chart of usage of the two phrases in English literature:


By the way, if you haven’t read my guide on how to avoid the most common mistakes in English, make sure to check it out; it deals with similar topics.