Distinctio Definition

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A barmaid's unnecessary use of distinctio in Uncle Dynamite (1948), a comic novel by P.G. Wodehouse.

Distinctio is a rhetorical term for explicit references to the various meanings of a word--usually for the purpose of removing ambiguities.

As Brendan McGuigan points out in Rhetorical Devices (2007), "Distinctio allows you to tell your reader exactly what you mean to say. This sort of clarification can be the difference between your sentence being understood or being taken to mean something entirely different from what you intended."

Examples and Observations:

  • "It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If 'is' means 'is and never has been,' that's one thing. If it means 'there is none,' that was a completely true statement."
    (President Bill Clinton, Grand Jury testimony, 1998)
  • Love: "[I]t would be a long while before I would come to understand the particular moral of the story.

    "It would be a long while because, quite simply, I was in love with New York. I do not mean 'love' in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite that same way again."
    (Joan Didion, "Goodbye to All That." Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968)
  • Envy: "Don Cognasso will tell you that this commandment prohibits envy, which is certainly an ugly thing. But there's bad envy, which is when your friend has a bicycle and you don't, and you hope he breaks his neck going down a hill, and there's good envy, which is when you want a bike like his and work your butt off to be able to buy one, and it's good envy that makes the world go round. And then there's another envy, which is justice envy, which is when you can't see any reason that a few people have everything and others are dying of hunger. And if you feel this fine sort of envy, which is socialist envy, you get busy trying to make a world in which riches are better distributed."
    (Umberto Eco, "The Gorge." The New Yorker, 7 March 2005)
  • Battlefields: "A significant proportion of the detainees held at Guantanamo were picked up far from anything remotely resembling a battlefield. Arrested in cities all over the world, they could only be deemed combatants if one accepts the Bush Administration's claim of a literal 'war on terrorism.' . . . A review of these cases shows that the arresting officers are police, not soldiers, and that the places of arrest include private homes, airports and police stations--not battlefields."
    (Joanne Mariner, "It All Depends on What You Mean by Battlefield." FindLaw, July 18, 2006)
  • Sound: "Does a tree falling in the forest make a sound when no one is around to hear it?...

    "Whether an unobserved falling tree makes a sound, then, depends on what you mean by sound. If you mean 'heard noise,' then (squirrels and birds aside) the tree falls silently. If, in contrast, you mean something like 'distinctive spherical pattern of impact waves in the air,' then, yes, the tree's falling does make a sound. . . ."
    (John Heil, Philosophy of Mind: A Contemporary Introduction, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2004)

Distinctio in Medieval Theology

"Distinction (distinctio) was a literary and analytical tool in scholastic theology that aided a theologian in his three basic tasks of lecturing, disputing, and preaching. In classical rhetoric a distinction referred to a section or unit of a text, and this was the most common usage in medieval theology as well. . . .

"Other forms of distinction were attempts to examine the complexity of certain concepts or terms. The famous distinctions between credere in Deum, credere Deum, and credere Deo reflect the scholastic desire to examine fully the the meaning of Christian belief. The propensity to introduce distinctions at almost every stage of argument left medieval theologians open to the charge that they were often divorced from reality, since they resolved theological issues (including pastoral problems) in abstract terms.

A more severe critique was that employing a distinction assumed that the theologian already had all the data necessary at his fingertips. New information was not needed to resolve a new problem; rather, the distinction apparently gave a theologian a method for only reorganizing the accepted tradition in a new logical manner."
(James R. Ginther, The Westminster Handbook to Medieval Theology. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009)

Pronunciation: dis-TINK-tee-o

From the Latin, "distinguishing, distinction, difference"