Difference between ‘electronic’, ‘electric’, and ‘electrical’

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 meanings of “electric”, “electrical”, and “electronic” often overlap, but the three adjectives are not completely interchangeable. The easiest case to deal with is electronic, which was originally defined as follows:

An electronic device is a device consisting of a large number of small complex parts that utilize electricity (such as microchips).

We can speak of electronic equipment, electronic components, electronic computers (a term falling into disuse due to the fact that all modern computers are electronic), and other electronic devices. In modern usage, anything that has an “electronic version” (i.e. a version for electronic devices) and was originally done or produced without the use of electronic devices can be described as being “electronic” itself (with “electronic” often abbreviated as “e”), for example,

electronic mail (e-mail, email), electronic media, electronic government (e-government), electronic music, …

The words “electric” and “electrical” have an overlapping meaning:

Both electric and electrical can be used to describe physical properties of electricity.

It is possible to use “electrical current” as well as “electric current”, “electrical power” as well as “electric power”, etc. However, when referring to a particular device that is based on turning electricity into another form of energy, the preferred form is “electric”:

electric motor, electric guitar, electric light, electric spark plug, …

Somewhat surprisingly, when speaking about unspecified devices or something only related to electricity, most speakers use the adjective “electrical” instead:

electrical device, electrical equipment, electrical system, electrical engineering, electrical worker, …

In most of these, “electronic” would also work, but it would carry a different meaning. For instance, a smartphone and a laptop could be described as electronic devices, whereas most people would call electric drills, toasters, and similar “primitive” tools electrical devices

Finally, only the word “electric” (not “electrical”) can be used metaphorically as a synonym for “exciting”, as in

electric evening, electric atmosphere, electric effect on the audience, …

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.