I was told I misused the word respective in the sentence 'If bilingual, please list the respective languages.'

My understanding is that the word points to the prior mentioned subjects. Here's a definition:

respective adjective [ attrib. ] belonging or relating separately to each of two or more people or things : they chatted about their respective childhoods.

So I struggle to see how I used the word incorrectly when the question asked to have the listing of the languages spoken by those who are bilingual. Please explain how I misused it and how I can use it correctly.

  • 3
    American Heritage Dictionary says: adj. "Relating to two or more persons or things regarded individually; particular: successful in their respective fields. You might have said, "If bilingual, please list the relevant languages." Or, "If bilingual, please list the pertinent languages." – JLG Oct 4 '12 at 20:55
  • Thank you. So 'respective' would need to be used when there are two clearly outlined prior subjects it's referring to? – Warren van Rooyen Oct 4 '12 at 21:00
  • Not exactly. It means that your subjects may have two (or more) different things that they each relate to separately. These links give a couple of more examples: uhv.edu/ac/newsletters/writing/grammartip2008.03.25.htm sentence.yourdictionary.com/respective – JLG Oct 4 '12 at 21:06
  • This is really General Reference, and I've voted to close accordingly. But, @Warren, you're right that in most contexts, respective applies to multiple previously-mentioned referents, that have clearly-identifiable associated attributes. JLG's successful in their respective fields example is slightly different, in that neither the people nor their fields might have been explicitly enumerated previously, but the principle is that the connection between thing and respective thing should be clear for any individual case. – FumbleFingers Oct 4 '12 at 21:08
  • 2
    ...as in "Neither my mother nor my father is a native speaker of English. Their native tongues are Estonian and Ukrainian respectively". Without the word respectively, it's possible (though, I admit, unlikely) that you just happened to list the languages in that order, but that in fact your mother (first listed) is the one whose native tongue is Ukrainian (second listed). – FumbleFingers Oct 4 '12 at 21:16

Respective designates the one-to-one relationship between the corresponding members of two different sets of things. Thus, in the examples given in the comments to your question

  • "They chatted about their respective childhoods" — A chatted about her childhood and B chatted about his childhood. One set of chatters, one set of childhoods; for each chatter there is a corresponding childhood.
  • "succesful in their respective fields" — A was successful in her field, and B was succesful in his field. One set of successful people, one set of fields; for each sucessful person there is a corresponding field.


And, as FumbleFingers points out, if you enumerate the two sets, the members must be named in the same order.

In your example, however, there is only one set of things, languages, and there is no other set of things to which which the languages stand in a one-to-one relationship.

  • This is correct but not complete. Respective to order is not the only meaning of respective. – Jon Purdy Oct 5 '12 at 5:07
  • @JonPurdy Could you enlarge on this? Googling "respective to order" doesn't yield me any useful results. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 5 '12 at 14:20

On this question you'll find some disagreement. Despite the core meaning provided by StoneyB, sometimes 'respective' simply means 'separate, several, particular', as is attested both by the dictionary and by a corpus search.

The trouble for a lot of people is that separate, several, particular and respective are all examples of a class of 'weak' words which are often technically redundant and merely bog down sentences. (To study this argument in greater detail as applied to "respective", look here.)

Examples of 'unnecessary' respective from the corpus search link:

Their respective shares of the vote in the first round of voting were: Les verts 4.01 per cent, Génération écologie 3.62 per cent.

The trust will also recommend whether the investment costs should be passed on to consumers (a decision ultimately the responsibility of the respective regulatory bodies).

  • The dictionary's definition provides an example which agrees with my use; its synonyms provide words of similar meaning, not the same. Your corpus search offers 50 citations: 3 of these would conform to my use if one word in each were pluralized; 3 offer too little context to judge whether they conform or not; the rest--44, or 88%--conform to my use. As to redundancy, this is sometimes true, as in your first example, and sometimes not, as in the second, where it is necessary to make clear that each body makes the decision for matters in its own purview, not all bodies together. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 4 '12 at 23:52
  • The dictionary also provides a definition that agrees with my parsing as well, namely "separate, particular". Moreover, as for example #2, why would there be multiple regulatory bodies, except to make decisions with respect to their own purview (as opposed to making decisions outside of their purview, or in the purview of another body)? And why would there be multiple regulatory bodies, except to make different decisions? These are fair presumptions for the listener to make. And if so, how can you claim that the use of respective in that instance is necessary? It's not even informative. – Merk Oct 5 '12 at 4:31
  • In my view, if you want to make the case that 'respective' serves a function in cases like that one, you're on better ground arguing that it acts as a 'distributional focus particle' putting emphasis on the fact that more than one regulatory body is involved. I can't find a good link to focus particles, but here's a start: glottopedia.de/index.php/Focus_particle – Merk Oct 5 '12 at 4:37
  • "Fair presumptions" for an ordinary reader are not, alas, presumptions you can count on lawyers to make--quite the contrary! It is there to eliminate any possible ambiguity, however far-fetched. Thank you for the reference to 'focus particles'; I look forward to reviewing it. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 5 '12 at 12:12
  • Following up: 'distributional focus particle' makes sense, with the qualification that the 'focus' is usually local rather than sentence-wide. But I'm just beginning to get my teeth into this. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 5 '12 at 14:00

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