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Two-part question. We say magic wand and magical creature, and swapping the adjectives would definitely be wrong.

  1. Are there rules about which one to use, or is this a classic "use whatever sounds right" situation?
  2. Can anyone explain how a single adjective comes to be "modified" like this depending on context? Is there a linguistic term for this?
  • I don't know enough linguistics to answer the second part, so I'm just writing this as a comment. This seems to be a "use whatever sounds right" scenario as you observed. Apart from your examples, it's always "magic square", "magical thinking" and "a magical evening". – Deepak Dec 19 '14 at 17:31
  • This Wikipedia section is all I could find, and suggests that it's a case of whatever sounds right. – Gerger Dec 19 '14 at 17:39
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    The OED does not make clear when to use magic and when magical. But there are one or two pointers. Where the meaning is the secondary one of 'beautiful or delightful in a way that seems removed from everyday life' then it has to me magical e.g. a magical evening. Where it refers literally to magic, one does not seem to use magical unless it is 'relating to, using, or resembling magic. For everyday magicians' kit, magic seems to apply. – WS2 Dec 19 '14 at 23:34
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    I can see no reason to call the swapped version “definitely wrong”. – tchrist Dec 20 '14 at 1:14
  • See also english.stackexchange.com/q/6581/9368 – GEdgar Mar 3 '18 at 21:00
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I think with careful speakers/writers, explicitly structurally adjectival magical is usually reserved for metaphoric usages, whereas magic tends to be more literally to do with the "supernatural". So if I were considering the utterances of a careful speaker, I would expect this distinction...

1: "You should read this magic book" (it's a book about magic)
2: "You should read this magical book" (reading it will be a metaphorically enchanting experience)

Note that where the referent is something that often occurs with the "noun-used-as-adjective" form (such as magic trick, lamp, beans, spell, wand, etc.) it usually carries a sense that the target noun has supernatural powers. My careful writer could imply that his book actually had supernatural powers in speech (by placing very heavy stress on the word magic), but in writing it would require rephrasing or help from context to disambiguate that third possible sense.

I suspect that (particularly in casual speech) there may be a tendency to use the shorter adjectival form more often, simply because the "more appropriate" full version sounds a bit highfalutin.

Having said that, there are plenty of established collocations where no literal reference to the supernatural is implied by the short form (magic square, lantern), and some that almost defy categorisation (magic marker, bullet). Those are the ones you just have to learn to get used to.

  • +1 for the magic/magical book example, and a metaphysical +1 for the bit about using the shorter adjective. – Graph Theory Dec 19 '14 at 19:32
  • @txteclipse: I can imagine the young Harry Potter boasting to a Muggle child: "Your magic wand is just a toy, but mine's a magic magic wand!" – FumbleFingers Dec 19 '14 at 19:48
  • Your ability to clarify the English language is amazing. It's magic! – bib Dec 19 '14 at 22:00
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    Unfortunately, we software developers have been contributing to the problem. "Magic code" is code that runs "behind the scenes" without being explicitly invoked, "magic numbers" are numbers that appear directly in source code and don't make any sense, a "magic cookie" is a security token, etc. Nobody ever uses "magical" on a noun in this industry, oddly enough. – Kevin Dec 20 '14 at 4:00
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    @Kevin: If the current somewhat flippant use of "magic" had been commonplace half a century ago, the "shut up and calculate" faction within the world of theoretical physicists would have referred to magic equations. But magick had a bad press back then. – FumbleFingers Dec 20 '14 at 4:08
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While in my mind they are mostly interchangeable, I might see differing usage based on the properties of the item. I would expect "magical" to be used for any item that was created through the use of magic whether or not the item can actually actively do/preform magic or simply has passive supernatural properties. I would expect "magic" to be reserved for items that are able to actively perform/do things. For instance, I believe a wand could be described either way, while a centaur I would describe as a magical creature unless it was able to actively cast spells or had some sort of specific power that would make it a magic (using) creature.

Please excuse the highly fantasy fiction slant of my answer; it seemed appropriate.

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It is a case where you can use whichever adjective sounds correct to you. Some of these phrases like magical creature have become more idiomatic. So it sounds slightly strange to native English speakers, if you use phrases like magic creature. The adjective suffix -al means "relating to". In this case, for the word magical, it means relating to magic. The linguistic term for these -al suffixed adjectives would be derivation (Source: Wikipedia), but there's not any grammatical rules that require the derived versus the non derived adjective.

The word magic in the term magic wand is what's called a noun adjunct (Source:Wikipedia). A noun adjunct lets you use magic as an adjective instead of a noun. Using magic or magical is acceptable but usually people choose the phrasing that is already the most commonly used.

  • No; I've just checked in six online dictionaries, and each lists 'magic' as having achieved full denominal (here, adjectival) status. Both 'magic' and 'magical' mean 'relating to magic'. But you're right about a polarisation having taken place with regard to which variant to use where. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 6 '15 at 14:52
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There is a slight difference between magic and magical.

  • magic (adjective) ~ 1. pertaining to magic (n.); used in magic (n.); having the power of magic (n.); as, "a magic wand" and 2. producing extraordinary results, as if by magic (noun) or supernatural means.
  • magical (adjective) ~ magic (especially in sense 2 of magic (adj.), defined above): used predicatively as well as attributively, whereas magic (adj.) tends to be attributive alone.

(Webster's New 20th C. Dictionary, Unabridged, 2nd Ed., c.1959)

So, both words may be used attributively, but only magical may be used predicatively.

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