How to Use Respectively in a Sentence
  • 3-minute read
  • 12th August 2019

How to Use Respectively in a Sentence

Today, we’re looking at the word “respectively,” which we use to refer to something previously mentioned. This is a great word when used correctly, allowing us to clarify how different parts of a sentence relate to one another. But it’s also easy to misuse if you’re not sure how it works.

Let’s look first at how “respectively” should be used, then, before examining a couple of common errors you’ll want to avoid.

How to Use Respectively in a Sentence

“Respectively” is an adverb meaning “in the order mentioned.” We use it when we want to emphasize the relationships between two pairs or items in two parallel lists (i.e., two lists that contain the same number of items). For example, we could use “respectively” as follows:

Paris and Berlin are the capital cities of France and Germany, respectively.

This tells us that Paris is the capital of France and that Berlin is the capital of Germany. We know this because “respectively” means that the first city mentioned (Paris) goes with the first country mentioned (France), and likewise for the second city (Berlin) and country (Germany).

Common Error: Non-Parallel Lists

People make two main errors when using “respectively.” One is to use it without preceding parallel structures, or without a direct one-to-one relationship between items in two lists:

The wires connect to the diode and fuse, respectively.

Here, for example, “respectively” does not make sense because we don’t know how many wires there are or how they are distinct from each other. To correct this, we would need to write:

The orange wire and green wire connect to the diode and fuse, respectively.

In this version, we can clearly see which wire connects to which component.

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Common Error: Unnecessary Use of Respectively

Another error is to use this term when it isn’t necessary. For instance:

Dogs and cats are common household pets, respectively.

In this case, since both dogs and cats are pets, we can lose “respectively”:

Dogs and cats are common household pets.

We would, however, use this term to distinguish between the two. For example, we could clarify the genus to which each species belongs:

Dogs and cats belong, respectively, to the genera Canis and Felis.

Here, without the “respectively,” it would not be 100% clear which species belonged to which genus. This, therefore, is a good use of the term.

And if you need any more advice on using this word in a document, don’t forget you can try our proofreading service for free.

Comments (6)
Margaret Ross
18th July 2021 at 13:42
In my work as a copy editor of scientific journal articles. I frequently see respectively following "versus" constructions: "Treatments A and B resulted in significantly different overall survival (X% vs Y%, respectively)." Is respectively necessary? I'm inclined to delete respectively when the association of A and B with X and Y is obvious. If the description of the result is lengthy or the association isn't obvious, I usually insert the percentage after the description of each result.
    Proofed
    19th July 2021 at 09:49
    Hi, Margaret. I'd certainly agree that "respectively" is most useful (and necessary) when there is potential for ambiguity, and as long as the connections between the elements of the sentence are clear there shouldn't be a problem with deleting "respectively." At the same time, though, the use of "respectively" in your example sentence there isn't wrong, strictly speaking, so I'd say it would be fine to leave it be as long as the sentence still reads smoothly.
Adrienne Nemura
1st March 2022 at 01:02
I am an advocate for deleting the use of respectively to simplify things for the busy reader. For example "Recent work was done to reduce concentrations, including decommissioning the pipe and separating the stormwater in April 2010 and June 2012, respectively." Why not just write "Recent work was done to reduce concentrations, including decommissioning the pipe (in April 2010) and separating the stormwater (in June 2012)." Thoughts?
    Proofed
    1st March 2022 at 09:56
    Hi, Adrienne. Your alternative seems clear enough to me, but it also feels quite contextually dependent. For instance, your sentence there works without "respectively" because the dates given are extra information rather than an essential part of the main clause (i.e., you could delete the dates there and the sentence would still be grammatical). But you couldn't apply the exact same alternative to, for instance, the example sentences from our post without rephrasing further to accommodate the change, which might end up reading less smoothly: e.g., if you tried placing the "respective" information after the subjects of the sentence about countries and then rephrasing to keep it grammatical, you'd end up with something like "Paris (France) and Berlin (Germany) are capital cities." And while that contains all of the same basic information, it reads differently (as if we were just giving examples of capital cities rather than identifying the capitals of those countries in particular). Furthermore, while there are other ways we could rephrase to avoid using "respectively," these may end up reading awkwardly or becoming quite long (e.g., "Paris is the capital city of France and Berlin is the capital of Germany"). As a result, I'd say "respectively" is at least sometimes a useful word for clarifying the relationships between terms in sentences, but there's certainly an argument for trying out alternative phrasings, especially if you're finding your target readers struggle to follow how "respectively" is being used.
Manase Micah Kazosi
27th July 2022 at 06:06
The Government claimed that the major reason which has halted the implementation of this policy is the constraints of financial capability and human resources that can accommodate the cost of upgrading both class six and seven into form one and the following year be form two, until form six, even university respectively at a go. Help to check if respectively has been used correctly as well as the word at a go at the end
    Proofed
    27th July 2022 at 09:13
    Hi, Manase. I'm afraid that the meaning of your sentence isn't very clear, especially toward the end, so it's difficult to say whether you've used "respectively" correctly. What are the elements that are meant to be linked to one another? And what is "at a go" meant to mean in that context? It isn't really a phrase used in English to the best of my knowledge. Do you perhaps mean "at once" (meaning "all at the same time")? There are definitely some other errors in the sentence, too, and it would probably make sense to break it down into a couple of shorter sentences for clarity (if possible). If you'd like more specific advice and practical help, your best option is probably to submit your document for proofreading: https://proofed.com/proofreading-services/

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