Is there a difference between the two words when used for saying “that which distinguishes (something) from others”?

For example

… the distinctive patterns on the skin …


… the distinguishing patterns on the skin …

I somehow find distinctive more fitting here, or that might be because of my own bias as I have mostly read distinguishing with “achievements” and such words.

5 Answers 5


Distinct means clear, so distinctive means having the quality of clarity, easily recognised for what it is.

To distinguish means to tell apart, to identify. A distinguishing mark heps one to discriminate between two individuals of similar type.

The insignia of a car might be distinctive and easily recognised, but it is the number plates that are the distinguishing marks.


Distinctive patterns would be something you would especially notice, while distinguishing patterns would be ones used to tell one from the other.

These need not be altogether different, non-overlapping senses.


I think you are correct that, in the example you gave, distinctive is the preferred form. Here distinctive is an adjective that reflects a quality that can separate the object from others, and often communicates an implied "very".

His full body tattoos were distinctive.

Distinguishing is used more often as a verb form. While the participle distinguishing can connote that the object is capable of being differentiated from others, it seems less common and probably conveys a difference that is less than something which is distinctive.

There were distinguishing indicators in the various test results which allowed differential diagnosis.

Interestingly, the adjective distinguished, which derives from the verb distinguish almost always conveys a difference from other objects that is highly regarded.

I yield the floor to the distinguished gentleman from Kentucky. [Perhaps sarcastically.]


"Distinctive" expresses uniqueness and has positive connotations.

"Distinguishing" is a neutral term describing a property which allows an object to be differentiated from other objects of like type.


Distinctive is much more fitting here. I think distinguish would be a much higher degree of difference between two.

  • That's not the difference between the two statements. Aug 1, 2012 at 7:47

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