When to Use (and When Not to Use) Respectively in a Sentence


September 1, 2018 | Quick Fixes


When to use respectively in a sentence

Many writers use the word respectively to make certain sentences clearer and more concise.

Consider the following:

Jack was studying journalism, Jill was studying sociology, and Bill was studying geology.

A harmless enough sentence, but one that can be made simpler. We can eliminate the repetition of “was studying” by using respectively, as in the following sentence:

Jack, Jill, and Bill were studying journalism, sociology, and geology, respectively.

The second example improves the readability of the sentence. It is 15% shorter than the original (11 words versus 13). Moreover, the second example contains only one independent clause instead of three, and so the reader takes shorter pauses at the commas in the second example.

To test this, try reading both of the above examples out loud. See if you find the second one to be smoother.

Respectively also adds clarity. The next example is identical to the previous one, except respectively has been removed.

Jack, Jill, and Bill were studying journalism, sociology, and geology.

This sentence is ambiguous. It could mean what the second example means. But it could also mean that Jack, Jill, and Bill were each enrolled in all three courses (this is probably the most likely interpretation). Adding respectively makes it clear that each student studied one course.


When you should not use respectively

Do not use respectively for only one list of terms.

I regularly see authors misuse respectively by placing it at the end of sentences that contain only one list. The following sentence is an example of this:

Specimen D had a greater mass than Specimen A, Specimen B, and Specimen C, respectively.

Respectively is redundant in the sentence above because no terms are given that correspond to the different specimens.


Do not use respectively for long lists.

Some authors phrase their sentences using respectively regardless of how many terms are listed. However, large lists are hard to read when written this way.

Read the sentence below. It is quite difficult to follow even though its use of respectively is technically correct.

The results show that Specimen D had the greatest mass, weighing 75.6 g, whereas Specimen C, Specimen F, Specimen A, Specimen B, and Specimen E weighed 70.3 g, 61.2 g, 54.0 g, 50.9 g, and 47.7 g, respectively.

Now read the following sentence. Notice how much more apparent the results are.

The results show that Specimen D (75.6 g) had the greatest mass, outweighing Specimen C (70.3 g), Specimen F (61.2 g), Specimen A (54.0 g), Specimen B (50.9 g), and Specimen E (47.7 g).

There is no specific rule for how long of a list is too long. In my experience as a reader, I find that sentences containing respectively are very effective for pairs and lists of three items. At four items, I usually need to backtrack to link the items in the second list to the items in the first list.