The Language Perfectionist: Give This Proper Usage Some “Respect”

Consider the following examples, found via online search:

  • “As far as skilled labor is concerned only 9 percent stated that it was easy to find now, while 59 percent said it was difficult. Three years before 1991, the percentages were 8 and 61, respectively….”
  • “The authors are from Harvard University, Harvard University, Harvard University, and University of Chicago respectively.”
  • “What proportions of Africa and Australia respectively are desert?”

The word respectively is commonly overused and misused. Some writers probably haul it out because it sounds impressive. But it can be confusing and irritating. It forces the reader to backtrack and figure out which reference is which.

That’s what’s likely to happen to readers of the first example above. A simple solution would have been to state that, in the earlier study, 8 percent said it was easy and 61 percent said it was difficult.

The repetition in the second example sounds like a joke, though most likely an unintended one. Better: “The first three authors are from Harvard University; the last is from the University of Chicago.” Or better still, attach the names.

In some instances, the word is superfluous. That’s the case in the final example, where respectively serves no purpose and can simply be deleted.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]