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What's the difference between distinctive and distinct? My understanding is that something being distinctive means it has the power of differentiating between two things or making something different from other things, while something being distinct means it is different from other things. Is that right?

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

'Distinctive' can describe a single thing by itself and says that it stands out or is remarkable, or a feature that helps distinguish two things:

The distinctive style of van Gogh was not understood during his lifetime.

'Distinct' means the difference is not vague, and applies to one thing in relation to others:

A flu outbreak occurred on two distinct occasions.

That is, one thing is distinct from another if you can distinguish them easily, and a feature that helps distinguish them is distinctive.

But there is much semantic overlap, so one can often be replaced with the other with hardly any change in meaning.

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Things that are distinct can be distinguished from each other as separate.

Most potatoes fall into two distinct types.

Distinctive describes a characteristic of something that allows it to be distinguished from other things, or positively identified.

...from somewhere nearby came the distinctive smell of new rubber.

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