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According to the Cambridge dictionary (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/grammar/british-grammar/historic-or-historical), "historic" means "important or likely to be important in history" and "historical" means "related to the study of things from the past". Could I use both adjectives (with different meanings) with the word "site"? Example:

  • Machu Picchu is a historic site in Peru. (= MP is important/relevant in history)
  • Machu Picchu is a historical site in Peru. (= MP is related to the history of Peru)

2 Answers 2

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Historic and historical are used in slightly different ways. Historic means ‘famous or important in history’, as in a historic occasion, whereas historical means ‘concerning history or historical events’, as in historical evidence; thus a historic event is one that was very important, whereas a historical event is something that happened in the past.

So you can have both historic and historical sites depending on the sense that is meant.

Machu Picchu was declared a Peruvian Historic Sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

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Your definitions are correct.

  • Something is only historic if it is of historical importance. Events, rather than places tend to be described as "historic". For example, The Battle of Hastings is a historic event.

  • Anything which has a history, especially if it is interesting, can be described as "historical". Places in which important historic events took place may also be described as "historical", because they contain history. For example, the English town of Hastings, in which The Battle of Hastings took place, is a historical place.

Another reason why a place with a history might be better described as "historical" rather than "historic" is that "historic site" is a specific term for a place which has been preserved for its history - such as a national heritage site. The town of Hastings I used as an example above is still inhabited. However, the castle there is a heritage site, so in isolation may be described as "historic".

In general use though, they are sometimes used interchangeably. More often than not though, they are used as I have described. This ngram shows that places seem to be described as historic and historical, but are described as historical almost twice as much.

Lastly, it is worth noting than many English speakers prefer "an historic..." over "a historic..." (or historical). Others argue that it doesn't really matter these days, and it tends to depend on how people pronounce the word "history" - with a hard, or a softer 'h'.

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