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I am trying to come up with the right word that means that helps to tell apart easily, for example, one that fits into the following sentences:

  • Beak shape is a __ feature among birds.
  • Language is usually the __ feature for ethnic groups.

I tried differentiating and distinguishing, but was not quite sure.

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

The standard word in this context is distinguishing...

In principle, as OP suspects, differentiating ought to be useable in this context, but it just isn't. Apart from anything else, differentiation has largely been appropriated by the mathematicians.

For many decades, many linguists have worked within the framework of Distinctive Feature Theory, but that's a bit specialised. And in general parlance we often refer to the distinctive features of all sorts of things, but by that we normally mean features which are particularly noticeable, rather than features which are crucial to identifying exactly what we're looking at.

Also identifying features, which for some reason seem to be more associated with contexts outside biology/taxonomy. All these terms (less commonly) occur with characteristic instead of feature.

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Discriminative and discriminating are also valid.

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Technically speaking they're valid, but I get the impression from NGram that discriminating features died out by the mid-1800s. To the extent that either word occurs with features today, it seems to me most of the writers are non-native speakers - a goodly number of them having names that look Indian. – FumbleFingers Dec 6 '11 at 1:42
@Fumble, I think your post quite clearly shows what to use, but mine was in reply to the "or another word" part. – Mr.Wizard Dec 6 '11 at 3:26
Yeah, I agree they're semantically okay. To an extent discriminating is used with the same sense as discerning, but it has the "differentiating" sense too. And discriminative sounds dated to me, but I wouldn't call it archaic. And there's the new kid on the block - identifying features – FumbleFingers Dec 6 '11 at 5:42
@Fumble I agree. I think discriminating features is practically more likely to be used to describe features that are able to discriminate, as in "The enhanced discriminating features of the upgraded AIM-9 missile allow it to be effective against modern infrared countermeasures." – Mr.Wizard Dec 6 '11 at 6:36

In my opinion, 'Beak shape is a characteristic feature among birds' seems to fit well. You could as well use the word 'individualizing'.

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I'm fond of discernible/discerning myself.

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I do not believe those mean what you think they do. Discernible is akin to perceivable or detectable, while discerning means "showing good or outstanding judgment and understanding" (dictionary.com). – Mr.Wizard Dec 6 '11 at 3:20

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