Electric, electrical, electronic

  • Electrical, electric, and electronic share much common ground, and they are interchangeable in many uses, but it’s possible to sketch rough differences between them.

    • Electrical means of or relating to electricity, and it’s used for things that generate or process electricity—for example, electrical generators and electrical outlets. It’s also simply a broad term for anything that uses electricity.
    • Devices that run on electricity are electric—for example, electric lights, electric heaters, electric cars.
    • Electronic describes devices that manipulate electrical current internally through switches. It’s also used for virtual forms of things that were traditionally in the physical world, such as electronic stores and electronic books.

    If these distinctions are accurate (and if anyone reading this has expertise in these matters, we look forward to your corrections in the comments), then all electric and electronic devices are electrical, and all electronic devices are electric, but not all electric devices are electronic.

    In any case, a few web searches reveal that these distinctions are not always borne out in real-world usage. In particular, electric is often used where we might expect to see electrical.



    In these examples, the words fit with the distinctions outlined above:

    The biggest is a recall of night lights that pose a risk of fire from a potential electrical short circuit in the light. [Washington Post]

    But new research in China shows that electric cars have an overall impact on pollution that could be more harmful to health than conventional vehicles. [Daily Mail]

    The case gave the court an occasion to examine just how far police can go when it comes to searching electronic gadgets. []

    And in these examples, the words go against those neat distinctions:

    On April 4, a short in an electrical fan resulted in a flash fire in the home of Dr. Foot. [West Lorne Chronicle]

    The saws, which can grow more than a metre long in some species, have previously been identified as able to sense prey by their electric fields. [BBC News]

    The newest electronic vehicle charging station in central Massachusetts is being installed in Auburn. [NECN]



    1. Of your examples that go against the distinctions, one actually could be correct in limited contexts:

      “The newest electronic vehicle charging station in central Massachusetts is being installed in Auburn. [NECN]”

      We don’t typically say “electronic car”, but modern electric cars are full of electronics and are driven by electric motors. One might argue that either description is potentially correct (pun intended). However, batteries are electric and never electronic, and the electronics aren’t necessarily needed. For example, none were used in the simple electric cars of the early 1900s.

      The ambiguity of this sentence leads to the other possibly correct context. Most modern vehicle chargers are packed with sophisticated electronics to prevent overcharging, which is detrimental to battery lifespan. If one reads the ambiguous phrase “electronic vehicle charging station” to mean a vehicle charging station containing electronics, the example is actually correct.

      On the other hand, ambiguity sucks.

    2. Ilan Elron says:

      Within the confines of this debate, ELECTRONIC is an adjective for something that involves the conduction of electrons through anything that is NOT a usual conductor, e.g. a gas, a vacuum, a semiconductor.
      Thus, if a device happens to “manipulate electrical current internally through switches” as described above, but all those switches are mechanically connecting or disconnecting conductors, that device is only electrical.

    3. Electrical Engineer says:

      When referring to the field (i.e. the electrical half of an electromagnetic field), electric is the standard by a significant margin, exclusively so in technical contexts.

    4. Jed Schaaf says:

      Generally, the description above is correct. Possibly more precise would be distinguishing by the purpose of whatever is being described. Electrical things have the purpose of doing something to or with electricity, like producing, transferring, or converting it (voltage, amperage, etc.). Electric things convert electricity to do something else, like produce light, heat, or motion. Electronic things process information using electricity, like automatic switches, gauges, computers, or calculators. Electronics are the actual electronic circuits that do the processing. Electric also has the figurative meaning of something exciting or shocking.

      • Ian Heaton says:

        I agree. We tend to use “electric” for devices that use electricity for its power (electric motor, electric heater) and “electronic” if they are using electricity for carrying or controlling information (electronic calculator, electronic control etc.) This is increasingly complicated as many devices do both (electronic ignition uses both the power and information capabilities of electricity and more and more electric devices include electronics to monitor and manage their function).

    5. The definition of electronic is quite incorrect. Electronic describes much, much more than “manipulating electrical current internally though switches”. As a professional electronics design engineer with 30 years experience, I would define the word electronic as describing devices that manipulate of voltage and current by means of analogue or digital components for the purpose of producing signals that are fit for purpose”. Incidentally, I use the word “analogue”, because in the English speaking world outside the USA, “analog” is almost never used.

    6. My apologies. I made a typographical error in my previous post, it should read, “Electronic describes devices that manipulate voltages or currents by means of analogue or digital components for the purpose of producing signals that are fit for purpose”.

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