Distinctives is a word

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Distinctives is a Word - May 2004 Update

Back in December 2002, I wrote an article called "Distinctives is not a Word". Last month I heard from two people with convincing arguments that distinctive can indeed be used as a noun.  Both the Oxford English Dictionary and Webster's Unabridged Dictionary list distinctive as a noun.  However, I still say that this usage is primarily found in the Evangelical Christian subculture.

Distinctive Can be a Noun

Apparently, my web site generated a little discussion at George Fox University. I include, with permission, a rebuttal:

The following is from a posting on our faculty discussion board. One faculty member had commented on your discussion of "distinctive" and another gave this response. I thought that you might be interested, and that you might consider posting this rebuttal on your site.

Rick Muthiah

The thesis is that 1) "distinctive" is an adjective but not a noun, and 2) only Christians use this term, and it reveals their anti- intellectualism, since secular counterparts do not use the term in this way. George Fox University is first on his list of offenders. Shame on us? Needing a break from grading, I decided to check out his argument and found the following:

1) For his first thesis, Matthew (the guy who has a web-site dedicated to this pet peeve of his) cites the Merriam-Webster Online dictionary to prove that 'distinctive' is not a noun. He also says that the first misuse of the term in print he could find was by "Otis Moss, in 1972: Black Church Distinctives." Well, the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) disproves both of these statements, citing 'distinctive' as an adjective AND secondarily as a noun. Furthermore, the OED cites usage of the term as a noun as early as1817. (see the OED definition below).

Oxford English Dictionary "Distinctive" B. n.

1. A distinguishing mark or quality; a characteristic.

1816 KEATINGE Trav. (1817) I. 189 The red umbrella, the distinctive of royalty here. 1836 CARD. WISEMAN Sc. & Relig. I. iii. 173 An intermediate class, possessing, to a certain degree, the distinctives of the extremes.

2) Matthew's second thesis, that this 'misuse' of the term is unique to Christians ( he says "100% exclusively by Christians") really bothers him because he says it makes us Christians "look stupid, like we don't know how to properly use grammar." Well, if anyone questions the OED as a reliable source on the matter, and still insists that 'distinctive' is grammatically incorrect, then at least comfort can be found in the fact that Christians are not alone in using the word this way. I did not have to search long to discover that the term is used as a noun by many people at secular universities, including the University of Oregon, Washington State, Michigan State, and even THE Ohio State University uses the word as a noun. (See the links below).

Secular Universities who have "distinctives"
Michigan State University
University of Oregon
Washington State University
University of Charleston, West Virginia
Winona State University
Georgia College and State University
University of Oregon
The Pennsylvania State University
East Tennessee State University
Scholar from The Ohio State University

It's not that I'm a big fan of using the term 'distinctive' as a noun, but your suggestion, Michael, piqued my interest. I guess the use of 'distinctive' as a noun is not a distinctive of Christians afterall. And if the OED is right, it's not even a distinctive of those who are grammatically incorrect. =)

-Corey   (Corey Beals, George Fox University)

Corey adds:

I would add one caveat to my comments. I referred to it as a matter of grammatical correctness, when really I should have said that it is a matter of usage. A purist might still argue that it is incorrect or sloppy usage since slang also gets put into the dictionary. The presence of 'distincitve' as a noun in the OED is not definititive proof by itself that it is correct usage. However, it's long history of usage in literature (dating to 1817) combined with the fact that it is used currently used consistently by scholars--both Christian and secular alike--is probably what settles the argument, in my view.


I also received a response to a message I left on a blog, called distinctives.blogspot.com.  Toni's April 14, 2004 entry links to an online quiz that you can take to see how grammatically sound you are.  Toni received the "Grammar God" rating, and I left the following message:

Congratulations on your status of "Grammar God". However, it's kind of ironic that your whole blog is named after a grammatical error. "Distinctive" is an adjective, not a noun. And for some odd reason, it seems that only Evangelical Christians make this mistake. See my web page for examples.
by: Matthew Weathers (
URL) on 2004-04-17 14:22:38

Two responses:

Well, let's see now... according to Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language (Unabridged, CopyRight 1966), 'distinctive' can in fact be a noun. Its plural form is 'distinctives.' In its definition, 'disjunctive' is cited, which word may act as a noun as well, and one of its listed definitions is "a situation involving alternate choices." It would seem to be a seldom-used form of 'disjunction.' Similarly, it would seem that 'distinctive' is a seldom-used form of 'distinction.'

It would seem to this fellow (and to at least one authority on the English language) that the title of this blog does not contain any error whatsoever unless we are to find fault with the use of seldom-used words. (I'm not quite sure what you mean by the blog being "named after a grammatical error" - the title is not "Earth-Shattering Misplaced Modifiers" or any such thing.)
by: Burkeley (
URL) on 2004-04-17 22:00:36

Matthew: It's a noun now.
by: Toni (
URL) on 2004-04-19 10:49:28

So, I am forced to agree, they are correct.  Distinctive can be a noun, and has been used as one in the past.

A Question of Usage

As Corey Beal said above, this is probably more a question of usage than grammar.  I agree.  Corey also disproved my claim that the word is used "100% exclusively by Christians" by listing several secular sites that use the word.  However, I still claim that it seems like most of the people who use "distinctives" are Evangelical Christians.  And I still claim that it is not all that common in secular society.  Otherwise, modern dictionaries would have it listed.  The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary (www.m-w.com) doesn't have it.  Neither does their 11th edition Collegiate Dictionary (printed version).  However, as pointed out above, their Unabridged version (http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com/) does.

Even though I have been proven wrong, I still think it is interesting to note that a certain subculture uses a specific word much more than the rest of society in general.  Just type in distinctives to any search engine, and notice what kind of sites show up:


By my count (as of today, 15-May-2004), 24 of the top 30 search results are specifically Christian web sites.  And I would suspect that most or all of the other six were written by Christians.  (See archive of my Google search).

In conclusion, I now agree that "distinctives" is a word.  However, I still advise against using it, because it's not in widespread common usage.


Update Jan 2005

My friend Rob points out that the word distinctives appears frequently in higher education marketing ("advancement") circles, and has been "in almost every advancement publication written in the last 20 years (not that I've read them all)". So apparently there's another circle of people who use this word.  To see examples of this usage, do a Google search like this:


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