But this is the Old Bailey. He's a Lord — or she's a Lady. You may find the wigs and the ceremonial ways that people refer to each other strange or intimidating. I was advised. But I don't find the wigs intimidating any more than the arcane forms of address; I find them comic.
p6, Apple Tree Yard By Louise Doughty

My head tells me it should be "comical". My Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary tells me that comical is an adjective which means funny, amusing, often because it is odd or absurd.

He looked highly comical wearing that tiny hat

Merriam-Webster (which is an American English Dictionary) says comical is: causing laughter especially by being unusual or unexpected. And causing laughter especially because of a startlingly or unexpectedly humorous impact. This matches The OALD's definition.

I must have looked comical in that big hat

And Oxford Dictionaries provides this example:

It made me jump at first, but once I was used to it, I found them strangely comical.

The OALD says that comic is [usu attrib] making people laugh; funny. 2. [attrib] of comedy: comic opera, comic actor

However, The Chambers Dictionary tells us that comic adj. is related to comedy; raising mirth or laughter, funny, humorous while comical adj. means funny, amusing.

For comic M-W has: causing laughter or amusement, funny

a comic monologue
His comic timing is impeccable.

If comic is normally used attributively and two dictionaries seem to confirm this, am I right in thinking the following sentence " I find them comic" sounds odd, or worse incorrect? What if the phrase were the following:

I find him (the judge) comic

Would that be exactly the same?

I've read the post comic vs. comical but it hasn't answered my query, because that asks about the difference in meaning. The definitions are included in my post therefore I am asking about a specific sentence in a novel and its grammaticality or appropriateness.

  • It's not incorrect (OALD says 'usually attributive, and AHDEL and Collins ED don't restrict the distribution). It's an unusual variant of comical in this sense, at least in the predicative position, and thus at least slightly jarring to many people. It's in a more formal register than comical, and has perhaps a hint of censorably comical. I prefer it here. A puppy is comical; a judge in a ridiculous wig I might call comic. Feb 11, 2015 at 12:18
  • @EdwinAshworth but isn't wigs worn by British judges unusual, odd and absurd? Could seeing a judge in the Old Bailey possibly make you laugh out loud?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 11, 2015 at 12:18
  • 1
    'Comical' is by no means wrong here. If you want to emphasise the humour and absurdity, use it here by all means. If I want to attempt to convey an additional hint of disapproval, I'll use 'comic'. Perhaps it doesn't have this nuance for many people, but I personally am nudged by (2) the rather abrubt, in-your-face nature of the word 'comic' and (1) the old humorous/disapproving expression 'dressed up like a comic singer'. Feb 11, 2015 at 12:24
  • 1
    "Comic" is valid and, in that context, sounds more, er, comical than "comical". If nothing else, shorter words tend to convey more of a comic "attitude" than longer ones.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 11, 2015 at 13:07
  • @HotLicks: If brevity is the soul of wit, then length must be the body of it.
    – oerkelens
    Feb 11, 2015 at 13:31

1 Answer 1


As both your research and Edwin Ashworth have pointed out, there is no reason to reject the word comic as incorrect. Ms. Doughty has significant semantic support for her choice, even if it seems like the wrong word on its face:

Relating to or in the style of comedy:

Contrary to the noble traditions of British judicial tradition, Yvonne, the narrator and protagonist, experiences the costumes and behavior as the buffoonery of a comic drama.

The question has been answered, but indulge me to reinforcing the semantic rationale for her jarring choice of the "wrong word", by pointing out an apparent literary purpose.

Spoiler alert! If you intend to read the story and enjoy the suspense read no further until you have read the last paragraph of the novel!

At precisely this point, in the larger context of the novel, Yvonne is being set up for her fall--the climax in Prologue. Since laughter is not the intent of the tragic narrative, comical might carry the reader too far away from the pathos of the moment, which will build throughout the story.

Interestingly, this critical moment is repeated verbatim in the body of the story, but her narrative is excluded, along with her notion of the comic court. The original "comic relief" is gone, and the crisis of four competing stories tears loose in the courtroom. When the plot is played out fully, the story concludes happily in the narrator's imagination as a subtly farcical tragedy in her imaginary-story-game tryst:

I smile to myself as we twine a little tighter. I am smiling at my folly, at yours. We both know that I could get up if I wanted to, that it is a game we play, this claiming you like to do, a game that flatters us both. For a few minutes more, we will pretend— I am yours and you are mine, and neither of us has any choice in that, and if we have no choice then we have no responsibility either. If we are the victims of our desires, our overwhelming desires, then none of this is our fault, is it? No one will get hurt. We are free from shame, from guilt. We are innocent.

Doughty, Louise (2014-01-14). Apple Tree Yard: A Novel (Kindle Locations 5153-5154). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

In that critical location of the Prologue, Doughty planted the first comic seed for what ends up being a romantic psycho-tragicomedy. Comic: in the style of Aristotle's Ancient Greek Comic Drama is more becoming for that purpose than comical:

"Comedy, as we have said, is a representation of inferior people, not indeed in the full sense of the word bad, but the laughable is a species of the base or ugly.

As The Guardian sees it:

For this is principally a novel about stories. "The stories we tell in order to make sense of ourselves, to ourselves," as Yvonne puts it, and the gap between them and the stories others create about us, based on selective facts...As readers, we are on Yvonne's side, privy to her secret account...

I find it comic: "in the style of [ancient] comedy."





  • Absolutely brilliant! I am thrilled by your answer :) But please "hide" or delete the last line from the Guardian review, it gives away too much!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 13, 2015 at 10:03
  • This is exactly the type of answer I was hoping for. And I thought the novel was terrific, I read it twice in succession.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 13, 2015 at 10:11
  • If you want a mind blower, and you have a searchable Kindle version, search claim. Doughty is the brilliant one. I just stumbled onto it because of your question.
    – ScotM
    Feb 13, 2015 at 10:14
  • I made a second note where the author repeats comic on page 279 (paperback) but within the context, I found myself agreeing with her: "This strikes me faintly comic, but the twist of amusement I feel is tinged with hysteria".
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 13, 2015 at 10:19

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