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I have seen several questions dealing with the use of "respectively" but still I am not sure how to use it.

Example:

We saw two persons, standing on the hill and near the tree, respectively.

I need a word to clarify that not both persons are standing both on the hill and near the tree, but that one person is standing on the hill and the other one near the tree. While this sentence is easy to rewrite (e.g. We saw one person... and another person...), this becomes more difficult in more complicated sentences and when I don't want to repeat longer words.

I was told that "respectively" can only be used in lists and I am not sure if "two persons" can be seen as a list (while "Person A and person B" would be a list). Moreover, I was told to use "correspondingly" instead.

Is "respectively" used correctly in the above sentence? If not, can I replace it with "correspondingly"?

  • Have you considered "independent of one another"? – Egox Mar 7 '16 at 10:24
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    Respectively removes the potential confusion of a mismatch of the order of two lists. You only have one list. – deadrat Mar 7 '16 at 10:58
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The term respectively is used in technical-style writing to indicate correspondence between lists, as noted in a comment to your question.

For example, A and B went to C and D respectively means that A went to C and B went to D.

However, the definition of the term (see below, especially the example listed in the dictionary entry) indicates that it can also be used in the manner you describe, where you have a group and associate the members with elements of a list.

Respectively adverb Separately or individually and in the order already mentioned (used when enumerating two or more items or facts that refer back to a previous statement): they received sentences of one year and eight months respectively - ODO

In the dictionary's example, the people referred to collectively by the word 'they' are associated with separate sentences, and the sense is that a different individual is associated with each sentence.

  • Thank you for this explanation. For me the example is not entirely clear. Is it one sentence of "one year and eight months" or two sentences, one of one year, and the other one of eight months? – Aki Apr 12 '16 at 8:27
  • But with your explanation it gives the answer to my original question :) – Aki Apr 12 '16 at 8:35
  • @Aki You're welcome. Yes, dictionaries should avoid potential ambiguities like that :) . The natural reading of the dictionary's entry is that one received a one-year sentence and the other an eight-month sentence. – Lawrence Apr 12 '16 at 8:37
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I think that it's technically correct but seems a little odd, because you would normally use "respectively" in a situation where you have previously listed the subjects ("We saw David and Susan...").

In this instance I would write

"We saw two people; one standing on the hill and one near the tree."

(Note that people is the plural of person, except in some legal documents which use the word "persons", possibly for archaic reasons).

  • I think respectively works okay here because although the OP hasn't listed the subjects he HAS listed the locations in which the people were seen. – John Clifford Mar 7 '16 at 9:52
  • Thank you, Max! I understand that the use of "respectively" in this simple sentence can easily be avoided. However, in my work, I have more complicated sentences, that I would like to keep as short as possible. It is a technical text where it is important to be brief and concise, but of course, the text needs to be correctly understood. – Aki Mar 7 '16 at 9:55
  • In my experience, you will get a much more valuable answer if you include the actual problem text in your question, rather than some other example which might mistakenly not actually be a good example. – Max Williams Mar 7 '16 at 9:56

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