It is my distinct pleasure to delve deep into the distinct differences between “distinct” vs. “distinctive.” How do we distinguish one from the other? What is distinctive about each? How are “distinct,” “distinctive,” and “distinguished” not so distantly related? It’s time we figured this out.
I know I’m not the only one who’s written the word “distinctive” and then paused—convinced it should actually be “distinct,” or should it be?
Here’s what you need to remember when these two words start to feel complicated:
- “Distinct” commonly refers to something that would be easily observed or recognized, something that makes an impression or that is unique. If you hear a distinct sound, that means you definitely heard something that stood out amid any other noises. If you see a distinct motion in the darkness, that means that you definitely saw something. And perhaps you should run. Or perhaps it was just an adorable kitten being mischievous when no one would see it getting into trouble.
- “Distinctive” often refers to a quality that separates something from others of its own kind. For example, a writer could have a distinctive style (among other writers). Your favorite craft beer could have a distinctive flavor (as compared to other beers). A cat could have a distinctive meow that is discernible from other meows from other cats. Or maybe it’s less of a meow and more of a yowl—in which case, good luck with that.
These aren’t the only definitions of these two words, but these are the definitions where the meanings sometimes seem most muddled.
Both “distinct” and “distinctive” have been around for a long time, the 14th and 15th centuries respectively. Now, that’s a lot of time for confusion between the two, but it is what it is. They are close etymological neighbors but not exact synonyms. I repeat: not exact synonyms.
“Distinguish” also arrived into English in the 15th century, with the “distinguished” form not appearing until 1714.
Whether you call me distinguished in my quest for clarity in English communications or not is up for you to decide, but I know this is another distinct word usage question that has people curious. Is my answer distinctive? Maybe. But either way, it’s good to finally have this settled.
Now, I apologize if you’re allergic to all of these cats.
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