Distinctives is not a word

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Distinctives is Not a Word

Matthew Weathers, December 2002

Update May 2004

I changed my mind!

I recently received a couple of emails about this page.  Apparently, distinctive can be used as a noun, and has been in the past, according to several old dictionaries.

So I take it all back... but the fact remains that it is mainly Christians that use the word as a noun.

See my Distinctives is a Word update.

I have for some time been annoyed whenever I see someone use the word "distinctives." This essay will explain why I am bothered by the use of that word, and why I want everyone to stop using it.

The first time I remember hearing the word was in 1996 or 1997, when my friend Eric Oldenburg was reading me one of his assignments for Talbot School of Theology.  The assignment was to explain "the distinctives of the Christian belief" on some issue.  I said, "hey, your teacher has bad grammar, you can't use the word 'distinctive' as a noun."

"I see it all the time," Eric replied.

"Really? Well, they're all wrong," I said.

I looked it up in the dictionary, and sure enough, it had the word listed as an adjective. The definition I read then was similar to what you'll see on Merriam-Webster Online today (http://www.m-w.com/):

Now, I recognize that language changes, and evolves in a fluid way.  However, it happens that only Christians in the American evangelical subculture make this mistake, and because of this, it makes us look stupid, like we don't know how to properly use grammar.

  Easy to Find Online

This particular mistake is easier to find than most grammar mistakes, because it involves an incorrect spelling.  If one misuses the work "their" instead of "there", this mistake is not too easy to find unless you read the whole context of the sentence.  However, if you see the word "distinctives", with an S on the end, you know the author has made the mistake of using it as a noun.  And because it has a particular spelling, finding web pages that contain the word is really easy: just go to any search engine, type in "distinctives", and you will see a long list of web pages.

Now, I don't really care too much if people misuse grammar, it happens all the time (in fact, I'm sure someone will soon point out some grammar mistake I've made in this essay -- that's the danger of writing about grammar).  However, the interesting thing about this list of web pages that show up in a web search is that every single one of them was written by an evangelical Christian.  This fact is what brought this to my attention.

Early Citations

Otis Moss, Black Church Distinctives, in Emmanuel McCall, ed., The Black Christian Experience (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1972)

S. Mark Heim, Montreal to Compostela: Pilgrimage in Ecumenical Winter, The Christian Century, April 1992 (Chicago: World Council of Churches), p 333


There are many words with specialized meanings, used in certain subcultures of society.  And words such as "sanctification" and "edification" are used almost exclusively by a Christian subculture.  However, most of these words are at least acknowledged by secular society.  This grammatical error of misusing the adjective "distinctive" is not accepted by society: it does not show up in any dictionaries as a noun, and the only publications whose editors allow it in print are evangelical Christian publications.


To verify my claim that Christians are the only ones to use the word "distinctives", see a Google search for that word:

Some online dictionaries:

  History of the Word

I was curious about when Christians started using this word. The earliest citation I was able to find was in the title of an article by Otis Moss, in 1972: Black Church Distinctives. After that, it seems to have come in to more mainstream use around 1992, with the earliest use appearing in print in April 1992 in an article by S. Mark Heim. (See citations above).

Why it Bugs Me

I think the main reason the use of the word "distinctives" bugs me is that most people who do it don't realize that it's incorrect, and it makes Christians look anti-intellectual.  Christians sometimes live in a cloistered intellectual environment, and don't interact with the outside world much. Within Christian circles, most people have probably heard "distinctive" used as a noun. But intellectuals outside the Christian environment who read this in print may think: "How did this error make it in to print? What kind of publication is this, anyway?"


Truthfully, most accusations of Christian anti-intellectualism are probably true. In fact the use of the word "distinctives" is sort of a shibboleth, exposing the authors and editors who use it as people who either don't care, or are too cloistered to realize that the real academic world sees it as a glaring grammatical error.

My father, Mark Weathers, is a linguist. When he first read the first version of this article, he said that it seems that Christians like the word so much because it conveys less meaning. If you use "distinctive" as an adjective, you have to attach it to a noun, such as "distinctive theology", "distinctive behaviors", or "distinctive practices". According to my father, it is typical for Christians to want to be distinctive about something -- anything, it doesn't matter what, as long as there is something that sets them apart.

Conclusion: It's Here to Stay

I had originally intended this article to be a call for Christians to clean up their grammar in this regard. However, I have seen the word in such widespread use (again, 100% exclusively by Christians), that I think it is too late for that.  Instead, I'll just point out that it is an interesting cultural phenomenon, and would make a good test case for linguists who like to study how words come in to use in a society. It will be interesting to see if this word eventually makes it to mainstream secular society.

Until then, however, just a warning to those of you using the word "distinctives": according the the rest of the world, it's a grammatical mistake, and it makes you look stupid when you use it.



Some prominent examples of Christians using the word "distinctives", along with my sarcastic remarks

Institutions that may emphasize evangelical distinctives at one point in time may not do so at another. page 8, Mark A. Noll, "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind" (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994, ISBN0-8028-419-5) Just like this book chooses to use "distinctives" at one point in time, but not another, on page 42: The distinguishing characteristic of Puritanism...  Ironically, this book is about how evangelicals have become too anti-intellectual.

About GFU: Distinctives What Sets George Fox Apart From Other Universities? http://www.georgefox.edu/about/distinctives/ What sets it apart? Well, for one thing, no secular university would use the word distinctives. However, among Christian institutions of higher education, George Fox has good company:

School Distinctives. International School of Theology, http://www.leaderu.com/isot/distinctives.html, December 2002

Distinctives of The Evangelical Free Church of America http://www.efca.org/distinctives.html, July 2002

Rosemead's major educational distinctives are its strong professional training orientation and its goal of relating the data and concepts of psychology to those of Christian theology ...and it's lack of proper grammar http://www.rosemead.edu/about_us/distinctives.cfm, December 2002

Distinctives and Installations. There are four distinctive characteristics of InfoHandler.com: http://www.infohandler.com/About/Distinctives/ Hmm... this is interesting, the author of this page wrote "distinctives" the first time, but then used the word correctly a few words later.  Also, at first I thought that this may be my first example of a non-Christian using the word "distinctives".  However, I suspect this organization has some ties to the Christian subculture, since it looks like they market their product to home schools and private school, which are mostly Christian.

Presbyterian Distinctives. Presbyterians are distinctive in two major ways... Points of Distinction: http://www.pcusa.org/101/101-distinct.htm  An interesting mix of different ways to use the word.

I think it's ironic that "distinctives" shows up in the places where the web pages mean to brag the most, and thereby end up showing off their ignorance the most.  It shows up on pages where the organization is trying to say: "Ta-da! Look at what makes us stand apart from the rest of the crowd"

Here are some examples of Christians not using the word:

One of the distinctive characteristics of the LDS theogony is that...
Jim W. Adams, "The New Mormon Challenge", ed. Francis J. Beckwith, et al. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002, ISBN 0-310-23194-9)

Distinctive features of this edition of the New King James Version
Back cover of a paperback New Testament, (New York: American Bible Society, ISBN 158516064-4

Distinguishing Characteristics Web page of the Quakers in Ireland, Dec 2002, http://www.ipag.com/quakers/characteristics.html

Navigation Bar: Home : Who We Are : Distinctive Characteristics... The Distinctive Character and Purpose of the Voice of the Martyrs Interestingly, the filename of their webpage indicates maybe they used to say "distinctives" somewhere on this page: http://www.vom.com.au/aboutus/pages/distinctives.html

Links, etc.

There's a great list of Common Errors in English, by Paul Brians, professor at Washington State University, at http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/

For a while, I could never figure out where the phrase "for all intensive purposes" came from, but then I realized I had been misusing the phrase "for all intents and purposes".  Now, I see this error frequently.

Also: I really like a book by C. Edward Good called "Mightier Than the Sword: Powerful Writing, In Class -- On the Job". (1989, ISBN 0-934961-02-6).  He suggests dropping the words "utilize" and "utilization", and using the word "use" instead.  Why use such a long word when a shorter word means exactly the same thing?  It just sounds pretentious.  I think he's right, and I never use the word "utilize" when I'm writing.  (Note: if you disagree: I challenge you to explain to me an instance where "utilize" means something different than "use")

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Created and maintained by Matthew Weathers. Last updated Apr 20, 2006.