Over the years I've stuck fast to a possibly self-invented rule that enumerating pairs of things in an out-of-order fashion requires a "respectively":

…where x, y, and z are "ecks", "why", and "zed", respectively.

But I begin to tire of this redundant usage where it's clearly obvious (or is it?) that the pairs match up n-to-n in the lists.

Is this rule I follow a real rule? Can I drop it in what seem to me, the writer, to be patently obvious cases?

  • 5
    RegDwight has already explains that not every use of “respectively” is redundant, but let me add some concern which I have from reading your question. “Can I drop it in what seem to me, the writer, to be patently obvious cases?” Of course not, because whether it is obvious to the writer or not is irrelevant. What is relevant is whether it is obvious to readers or not. If you put yourself in a reader’s shoes and assess that it is obvious to readers, then you can drop it. – Tsuyoshi Ito Nov 8 '10 at 13:36
  • Wouldn't 'patently obvious' be redundant, too, since 'patently' means 'obviously' or 'clearly'? – user9371 May 31 '11 at 15:15

I don't think it's clearly obvious in all situations that the pairs match up. I guess the main purpose of respectively is precisely to remove any potential ambiguity. Observe:

  • Jane and Joe are beautiful and smart.
  • Jane and Joe are beautiful and smart, respectively.

  • Japanese, Italians, and Russians are good at making sake, grappa, and vodka.
  • Japanese, Italians, and Russians are good at making sake, grappa, and vodka, respectively.

So I suppose you should always double-check whether you would still be saying the same thing if you dropped respectively (or any word, for that matter).

  • But neither of these examples is to the point, because people can be both beautiful and smart, and nation(alitie)s can make many products. If it is judged that the original example is talking about unique properties (and I think it is), then "respectively" is not necessary. In any case, there is no rule: it is simply a matter of being as precise as necessary. – Colin Fine Nov 8 '10 at 12:01
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    I'm not saying otherwise, @Colin. If something is redundant, it can be dropped by the very definition of the word redundant, and it would be redundant for me to address that. So instead, I am addressing the "or is it?" part of the question. As obvious as it might be to the author of the sentence that x can only be "ecks", for all I know as an uninformed reader, it could also be "zed" (just as Italians could be making the most excellent sake). – RegDwigнt Nov 8 '10 at 12:21

The "respectively" in those sentences isn't redundant. You might argue that it's unnecessary (in which case I'd disagree*), but "redundant" means that the word is repeating something you've already said. Think of the classic examples of redundancy "ATM machine" or "PIN number".

* As RegDwight has demonstrated, when you're listing nouns and their adjectives separately, the "respectively" is actually necessary. Otherwise, the reader has no reason to think there's a one-to-one correspondence between the lists.

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