Learn English – Alleged misuse of the word ‘respective’


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.

Best Answer

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.
  • "successful in their respective fields" — A was successful in her field, and B was successful in his field. One set of successful people, one set of fields; for each successful 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 the languages stand in a one-to-one relationship.

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