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. [Stuff.co.nz]
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]