Distinct, Distinctive, and Distinguished

Commonly Confused Words

B.B. King in 2009

Tom Beetz/ Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Can you tell the difference between distinct, distinctive, and distinguished? Though they are related, each of these three adjectives has its own meaning. Adjectives function to modify nouns and pronouns.

Distinct, Distinctive, and Distinguished: Definitions

Read these definitions and their examples closely to better understand how distinct, distinctive, and distinguished differ from each other.

Distinct

The adjective distinct means separate, discrete, clearly defined, and easily distinguishable from all others. It also means notable or highly probable.

Example: "The human species, according to the best theory I can form of it, is composed of two distinct races, the men who borrow and the men who lend," (Lamb 1823).

Distinctive

The adjective distinctive means having a quality that makes a person or thing noticeably different from others.

Example: "It is from the blues that all that may be called American music derives its most distinctive characteristics." -James Weldon Johnson

Distinguished

The adjective distinguished means impressive, eminent, and/or worthy of respect. (Distinguished is also the past form of the verb distinguish, which means to demonstrate or perceive a difference, to see or hear [something] clearly, or to make [oneself] noteworthy.)

Example: "Dr. Jäger was a distinguished child psychiatrist, a music lover, and, I remember, a dog lover—he had two dachshunds, Sigmund and Sieglinde, whom he was extremely fond of," (Percy 1987).

Distinct Vs. Distinctive

Distinct and distinctive are likely confused most often. Distinct means easily separable or discrete, but distinctive is used to describe a unique feature or quality belonging to one person or thing. Often, distinct is used to describe two or more items or groups. Distinctive qualities are what help make people or things distinct. More on this from Kenneth Wilson below.

"Anything that is distinct is clearly distinguishable from everything else; something distinctive is a quality or characteristic that makes it possible for us to distinguish one thing from another. Distinct speech is clear; distinctive speech is special or unusual. So a pileated woodpecker is a woodpecker distinct from most other woodpeckers, distinguishable from other woodpeckers; its large size is distinctive, helping us distinguish it from most other woodpeckers," (Wilson 1993)

Practice

To practice using these tricky adjectives, read the examples below and decide which word fits best into each blank: distinct, distinctive, or distinguished. Use each only one time.

  1. "The mirror was positioned so the receptionist could survey the entire waiting room from behind her desk. It showed a _____-looking woman in a fawn-colored suit, with long, auburn hair and a timeless gaze," (Bunn 2011).
  2. "His face was lined with weariness and his eyes were red. There were two _____ grooves running down his cheeks from his eyes where his tears had fallen," (Godin 1934).
  3. "Suhye let out her abrupt, _____ laugh. Her laugh was like an enormous, swollen soap bubble bursting. He could identify that laugh of hers with his eyes closed," (Kyung 2013).

Answer Key

  1. "The mirror was positioned so the receptionist could survey the entire waiting room from behind her desk. It showed a distinguished-looking woman in a fawn-colored suit, with long, auburn hair and a timeless gaze," (Bunn 2011).
  2. "His face was lined with weariness and his eyes were red. There were two distinct grooves running down his cheeks from his eyes where his tears had fallen," (Godin 1934).
  3. "Suhye let out her abrupt, distinctive laugh. Her laugh was like an enormous, swollen soap bubble bursting. He could identify that laugh of hers with his eyes closed," (Kyung 2013).

Sources

  • Bunn, Davis. Book of Dreams. Simon & Schuster, 2011.
  • Godin, Alexander. "My Dead Brother Comes to America." The Best Short Stories of the Century. 1934.
  • Kyung, Jung Mi. My Son's Girlfriend. Translated by Yu Young-Nan, Dalkey Archive Press, 2013.
  • Lamb, Charles. "The Two Races of Men." Essays of Elia. Edward Moxon, 1823.
  • Percy, Walker. The Thanatos Syndrome. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987.
  • Wilson, Kenneth. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. 1st ed., Columbia University Press, 1993.