Merriam Webster


1 : distinguished by some unusual quality especially : being in some way superior 2 : held in particular esteem 3 a : readily distinguishable from others of the same category : UNIQUE b : of, relating to, or constituting a species : SPECIFIC 4 : being other than the usual : ADDITIONAL, EXTRA 5 : designed for a particular purpose or occasion



being distinctive: as a : directed toward a particular individual, group, or end b : of special note or importance : unusually great or significant c : highly distinctive or personal : PECULIAR d : CLOSE, INTIMATE e : SPECIFIC, PARTICULAR

Online Etymology Dictionary

especial (adj.)

late 14c., from Old French especial "pre-eminent, important," from Latin specialis "belonging to a particular kind or species," from species "kind" (see species). Latin words with initial sp-, st-, sc- usually acquired an e- when borrowed by Old French. Modern French has restored the word to spécial. Originally with the same sense as special, later restricted to feelings, qualities, etc.

I gather from these definitions, the proper adjective to use is “especial”- to pay especial attention to. But I hardly encounter this use in common usage.

Any insight would be highly appreciated.

  • If you put any stock in Ngrams, special is highly favored. You can find far more instances of special attention in a straight Google search as well. This dictionary editor wrote an especially nice summary about this, too.
    – J.R.
    Jun 27, 2013 at 21:14

5 Answers 5


The actual usage stats from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and the British National Corpus (BNC) look as follows:

                              COCA       BNC

pay especial attention to        0         0
pay special attention to       129        30
ratio (%)                        0         0

especial attention               3         4
special attention              899       218
ratio (%)                        0.3       1.8

especial                       146       128
special                      86341     21534   
ratio (%)                        0.2       0.6 

So the verdict is exceptionally clear, on both sides of the Atlantic.

This usage of special is covered just fine by both dictionaries you consulted: the attention is "other than the usual: ADDITIONAL, EXTRA" (your Merriam-Webster quote), and the attention is not a "feeling, quality", to which especial came to be restricted (your Etymonline quote).

What I do not see follow from these dictionary entries is that it should be "especial". You just make that bold claim out of the blue, with no proof or reason to go with it. The quotes do not support it.

More to the point perhaps, you suggest that meaning is somehow derived from dictionary definitions, while the exact opposite is true. Or, in the words of an actual linguist: "Languages are not formal logic systems, and words do not derive their meanings from the definitions in dictionaries. If they did, then your argument would mean something, but as it is what you have is an amusing but pointless exercise."

If native speakers around the world collectively start using special to mean "orange", then that is what it actually means. If a dictionary fails to include that definition, it's the dictionary's problem, and the speakers do not need to pay heed to its shortcomings. (Indeed, they do not need to so much as be aware of the dictionary's existence, or any dictionary's for that matter.)

Conversely, if a dictionary decides to pretend that special means "orange", it doesn't mean jack as long as nobody at all uses the word that way. Unlike French or Spanish, English simply does not have a regulatory body that can prescribe usage like that.

  • 2
    And of course, even if English did have such a regulatory body, it could never hope to prescribe actual language usage by native speakers, but only usage of an artificial, standardised form of the language that is close to, but not exactly native to any speaker—in other words, the written language. Feb 14, 2014 at 20:01

I would use “pay special attention to”.

Especial is largely obsolete. The OED's first definition begins:

In senses now commonly expressed by SPECIAL...

The only definition where it's not marked as being in some way obsolete or archaic is:

Belonging pre-eminently to a particular person or thing...

which doesn't apply to the phrase you're considering.


While there are definitions of especial in numerous dictionaries, its actual use in recent years is almost non-existant. See, for example,

ngram especial

A breakdown of American English and British English give similar results.

  • 4
    Interestingly it is the opposite with -ly variants (especially), however. ngram
    – zsawyer
    Jun 27, 2013 at 22:24
  • George Martin: “Tyrion took especial pleasure in the sudden doubt he glimpsed in Cersei’s eyes.” JRR Tolkien: ‘Lady,’ he answered, ‘you are not yet healed, and I was commanded to tend you with especial care.’
    – tchrist
    Jun 27, 2013 at 22:48
  • 1
    @tchrist This supports the view that the usage is largely archaic.
    – bib
    Jun 28, 2013 at 0:16

The later is more appropriate.

"pay special attention to” is correct usage. I use it in writing and in speech because it is accepted by my customers, end user and my mates.

  • The general lack of grammatically in this answer makes it difficult to put much stock in, quite apart from the fact that there is nothing grammatically wrong with either option mentioned in the question. It is purely a matter of style and current usage. Feb 14, 2014 at 16:48
  • @JanusBahsJacquet, Yes, it is mainly matter of style/usage. And you know it is nothing wrong to say " besides it is grammatically correct." Because I do not mean other one is grammatically in-correct.
    – Sree Rama
    Feb 19, 2014 at 11:25

The two are used interchangeably. "Especial" is technically correct, but (IMO) sounds somewhat childish.

  • 1
    @Kaz That is really unnecessarily rude. Some of us read books as children, and had them read to us, rather than sitting in front of a boobtoob.
    – tchrist
    Jun 27, 2013 at 22:36
  • @Kaz Some of us didn't actually have a television to watch as young children, and when we did there was only 1 channel.
    – TrevorD
    Jun 27, 2013 at 23:58

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