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For example, let us say we were conducting a study of facial features and we were comparing hair color, nose type and eye shape. Those three characteristics would identify something or someone. What would a good term be for the items that are used to identify a unique point in the problem space?

I looked at a few similar words in the Thesaurus on thefreedictionary.com. For example, under coordinate (n) it yielded co-ordinate, Cartesian coordinate, polar coordinate and number. Most of those were not even synonyms except in the most trivial sense.

"Characteristics" is a superset of what I am referring to, as it includes all characteristics, not simply the ones considered unique or defining.

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Question is incomplete: lacks the results of research. Please edit the question to show research and explain why the results were inadequate. – MετάEd Dec 21 '12 at 16:33
@MετάEd You mean, show which words do not apply? – Michael Dec 21 '12 at 16:35
Interesting question; but I wonder if it belongs to our problem space. Isn't it a methodological term of art proper to the discipline in which the problem arises, rather than a term of natural language? – StoneyB Dec 21 '12 at 16:51
@StoneyB A term unique to the discipline would be. I guess I'm wondering if there is an English words that sort of encompasses this idea, regardless of discipline. – Michael Dec 21 '12 at 16:53
I mean show the effort you made before asking the question. What references or other sources did you consult? What was your conclusion? – MετάEd Dec 21 '12 at 16:54
up vote 4 down vote accepted

When I worked in scientific research, we called these distinction sets (for a group) or comparators (for the individual parameters).

You might also call them distinguishing features or points of differentiation/distinction.

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The classic term in our “problem space” is probably Roman Jakobson’s distinctive feature, one of a small set of acoustic or articulatory features which collectively distinguish the phonemes within any language’s phonological system.

The concept has been usefully extended to other disciplines — Lévi-Strauss, for instance, employed it fundamentally in the structural study of kinship systems and mythological corpora. But linguists may be vexed if you employ the term for features which are not privatively (that is, present/absent, +/−, binary) defined.

For instance: “Hair color (white, blond, red, brown, black) has too many choices and would not be a distinctive feature. But you could pick one distinctive feature—say, “fair+/−” — and have two choices: Blonde (fair+) and Brunette (fair−). Two features, “fair+/−”, “color+/−” would allow you to distinguish four colors: Blond (fair+,color−), Red (fair+,color+), Brown(fair−,color+) and Black(fair−,color−). And so forth.

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