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Lexicographical Treatment of -ic/-ical Adjectives: New Techniques to Meet Old Challenges

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Sven Tarp - Foredragsholder

Lidong Ma - Foredragsholder

One of the challenges that non-native speakers are facing when writing in English is the use of the suffixes -ic and -ical in connection with a relatively big number of adjectives. L2 learners sometimes have doubts about the form they should use in a concrete context. Other times they are simply not aware that they have a problem. This holds true even for learners at an advanced proficiency level, among them those who aspire to practice academic writing; see, e.g., Cabral et al. (2018). Examples of -ic/-ical adjective pairs that may create problems for non-native speakers are academic-academical, classic-classical, economic-economical, historic-historical, lexicographic-lexicographical, scientific-scientifical, and technologic-technological. When L2 learners consult some of the many web-based language fora, they may get recommendations for specific pairs of -ic/-ical adjectives, for instance, that they should avoid specifical. But they are also told that there is no general rule to guide them. In case of doubt, they are referred to dictionaries for more information. But do these reference tools actually provide the required assistance? Og how can this assistance be improved?
The paper will initially analyze and classify adjectives ending in -ic and -ical and try to detect some trends that may be relevant for learners at different levels. It will then look at the assistance they can get in traditional dictionaries as well as some of the new digital writing assistants which, in one way or another, are connected with lexicographical databases. Finally, it will come up with some suggestions for improvement.
The derivational suffixes -ic and -ical are highly productive in the English language and have been widely treated in the academic literature; see, e.g. Gries (2001, 2003), Kaunisto (1999, 2007), Li (2002), Ma and Tarp (2020), Marchand (1969), Xu (2010), and Zhang (1999). A Google search presented in The Oxford Handbook of Derivational Morphology “yielded 11,966 unique stems that take -ic, -ical, or both suffixes” (Aronoff/Lindsay 2014: 81). Of these, 10,613 favored the -ic form and 1,353 the -ical form. This is a considerable number of words. Some -ic/-ical adjectives are among the most frequent English words. The Longman Communication 3000 lists 29 -ic and -ical adjectives among the 3000 most frequent words in both spoken and written English. This suggests that around one percent of the most frequent English words are adjectives ending in the derivational suffixes -ic or -ical. This fact alone justifies special attention to the challenge.
Each of these adjective pairs is a potential source of doubts and mistakes when non-native speakers intend to write English texts. In some cases, the two variants may have different meanings or frequencies, and in other cases, one of them may be the preferred one in specific collocations and terms. In this respect, it does not matter whether one of the two variants is almost non-existing or only has a very low frequency in comparison to its counterpart. How should the learners know? They need some kind of guidance.
The paper will then analyze five of the most prestigious English online dictionaries (Collins, Longman, Macmillan, Merriam-Webster, and Oxford) and briefly describe how they treat the -ic and -ical adjectives. The analysis will show a great variation of approaches with both problematic and very convincing solutions going hand in hand. However, in all the dictionaries mentioned, the treatment of the -ic/-ical adjective pairs is inconsistent, which suggests that learners who do not know how to use some of these adjectives will have to look for assistance elsewhere.
The paper will continue with a brief test of four very different digital tools, all of which contain integrated dictionaries and provide assistance to writers of English (Grammarly, ProWritingAid, Write Assistant, and Microsoft’s Spelling and Grammar Checker). As was the case with the dictionaries, the test will show a great variation of performances and solutions, but with none of the tools providing a consistent assistance to their user.
Finally, the paper presents a proposal for a multidimensional lexicographical treatment of -ic/-ical adjectives that can be incorporated into a digital writing assistant. The proposal establishes new requirements to lexicographical databases and includes various types of user assistance, even to writers who are not aware of any problem. It also has a pedagogical dimension that makes it particularly relevant to non-native learners of English.
Disruptive technologies, like those applied in writing assistants, now invite us to regard this old question “from a new angle”. The choice between -ic and -ical may be seen as a small problem, but there are many similar challenges waiting for new technological angles, both in English and other languages. The paper should therefore be viewed as a case study that may inspire a similar approach to other “old questions”.

Aronoff, M. and M. Lindsay. 2014. Productivity, Blocking, and Lexicalization. Lieber, R. and P. Štekauer (Eds.). 2014. The Oxford Handbook of Derivational Morphology: 67-83. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cabral, J.J.A., O.S. Soto and J.J.R. Lares. 2018. Didactic Strategies to Improve the Competencies in Analytical Reading and Academical Writing of Future Teachers and Teachers in Service. European Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies 3.3: 155-166.
Gries, S.T. 2001. A Corpus-linguistic Analysis of English -ic vs -ical Adjectives. ICAME Journal 25: 65-108.
Gries, S.T. 2003. Testing the Sub-test: An Analysis of English -ic and -ical Adjectives. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 8.1: 31–61.
Kaunisto, M. 1999. Electric/Electrical and Classic/Classical: Variation between the Suffixes -ic and ‐ical. English Studies 80.4: 343-370.
Kaunisto, M. 2007. Variation and Change in the Lexicon: A Corpus-based Analysis of Adjectives in English Ending in -ic and -ical. New York: Rodopi.
Li, C.-Y. 2002. A Study of Differences between Adjective Suffixes -ic and -ical and their Relevant Aspects. Journal of Jiangsu University (Higher Education Study Edition) 24.4: 58-60.
Longman Communication 3000. [www.lextutor.ca/freq/lists_download/longman_ 3000_list.pdf]
Ma, L. and S. Tarp. 2020. Galileo and the Enigma of -ic/-ical Adjective Pairs: New Techniques to Meet Old Challenges. Hermes 60: 209-239. [https://doi.org/10.7146/hjlcb.v60i0.121320]
Marchand, H. 1969. The Categories and Types of Present-day English Word Formation. A Synchronic-diachronic Approach. München: C.H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung.
Ross, N.J. 1998. The -ic and -ical Pickle. English Today 14.2, 40-44.
Xu, H.-L. 2010. A Preliminary Study of Adjectives Ending in -ic and -ical. Journal of Fuyang Teachers College (Social Science) 136.4: 36-38.
Zhang, R.-J. 1999: The Choice between the English Suffixes -ic and -ical. The Knowledge of English 143.12: 32-33.
30 jun. 2021

Begivenhed (Konference)

Titel25th International Conference of the African Association for Lexicography
AfholdelsesstedStellenbosch University
Grad af anerkendelseInternational begivenhed

ID: 216237572