Consider the following sentence:

Sign up at example.com and apply your final model in the respective competition.

Is the word respective used correctly in the above sentence? There is a slight difference from the usual usage in that the competition has not been explicitly mentioned. Furthermore, it is just a single competition, whereas respectively is usually used to relate multiple characteristics to their respective objects.

Neither Macmillan nor online Oxford Dictionaries nor online Cambridge Dictionary list this usage, but to me it sounds too familiar to be wrong. I am not a native English speaker though, which is why I'm asking for your advice.

  • There can be more than one competition in the expression: respective competition. There could be a list and one of them would apply to you i.e., the person signing up.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 15:35
  • 1
    'Appropriate' or 'pertinent' sounds the correct choice to my ears. Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 15:48
  • Yes, competition can be used as a countable noun (OED). However, in this case it is referring to a particular competition and not more than one: the ... competition.
    – aesking
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 15:50
  • @EdwinAshworth Thank you. Please submit your comment as an answer so that I can accept it.
    – user33313
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 17:09

1 Answer 1


The narrowest/most precise definition of respective is the one Merriam-Webster for some reason confine to their 'definition for learners' slot:

respective adjective

Definition of respective for English Language Learners:

belonging or relating to each one of the people or things that have been mentioned

The question about usage corresponds to the choice of the ambiguous slash above: is this the most precise definition or the narrowest sense of various allowable senses?

Though the other definitions given by M-W (do meanings of words really change as one gets older?) do not include the 'people or things that have already been mentioned' caveat, they offer no examples where the caveat does not hold. For instance:

The Flyers, who entered the night with five regular-season games left, and Avalanche are both fighting for playoff berths in their respective conferences.


All three players started their college careers at NC State before transferring to their respective schools.


Lastly, in the world of Pepe Hernandez, Spanish speakers and their many respective, distinct cultures are blurred into a hodgepodge monolith.


At one point, Lofchie pointed out the city could even make use of three studies done by the respective high schools in the Indian Prairie School District, Waubonsie Valley, Metea Valley and Neuqua Valley.

There are no counterexamples given in CED and Collins.

RHK Webster's gives a 'mentioned subsequently' variant:

the respective merits of the candidates

and AHD an example where the preceding or subsequent referents are recoverable:

[All these scientists were] successful in their respective fields.

Successful in their respective fields, [these women are now ...].


Though ODO gives what are apparently examples which do not conform to this pattern:

Maybe the respective disciplines have differing aims anyway and can't be synthesised?


These developments have met with a mixed reaction in the respective countries.

there is obviously prior context missing, which must logically involve mention of different disciplines / different countries.

Discipline A --> Aim X / Discipline B --> Aim Y etc; Country A --> Reaction X etc.

And in fact ODO adds the caveat, at least in embryo, in the definition:

respective [adjective] [attributive]

Belonging or relating separately to each of two or more people or things.

they chatted about their respective childhoods

Overall, there definitely seems to be a requirement for a relation with two or more elements in both the domain and the range.

'Respectively' is used with the same caveat.


I'd use 'appropriate' or 'pertinent' rather than 'respective' here, especially without prior context.


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