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Diary of a Reader-Writer: Classic vs. Classical

January 31, 2013

Normally, grammatical infractions don’t bother me, at least not in conversation; I chalk them up to dialectical differences. However, one thing that drives me crazy in literary discussion is the use of the descriptors "classic" and "classical" interchangeably. These two terms are not synonymous.

The confusion is understandable, however, as the rules are incredibly complicated. When properly using the terms, the difference is very subtle. As a rule of thumb, the best label to apply to a book is "classic." This particular term refers to any book of outstanding quality or lasting impact. This could be anything from literary classics like Pride and Prejudice to pop-modern classics such as The Hunger Games. This term is a very broad one, as it applies to both the intellectual canon of writing as well as the contemporary works that pervade the public consciousness with sweeping breadth. However, when the word is capitalized with a "the" in front of it, it has a different meaning. The Classics are works from Ancient Greek or Roman authors, such as the Odyssey.

The reason that this starts to get a little murky at this point is because the term "classical" normally applies to the same set of books referred to as The Classics. As a general rule, only those old Greek and Roman works should be referred to as classical. However, there are few exceptions to this rule (of course, in English what doesn’t have an exception?). The best way to understand the more obscure usage of the term "classical" is to think of it as indicating a very specific period of time. For instance, if it is paired with a country, then the meaning is the peak or iconic period of time representative of the country.

It’s a mess, really. However, for clarity’s sake, it can be boiled down to this. Unless it’s a book from an old, dead civilization, or if you have any doubts whatsoever, just call it a classic.

Heather G.
Oak Grove Branch

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