'typical'/'distinctive' definitons


I feel that the dictionary's definition of 'typical' should be amended. I acknowledge that I may be completely wrong, however.

The definition: "having the distinctive qualities of a particular type of person or thing"

The word 'typical' is used to compare a thing of a certain type to most other things of that same type and concerns non-definitive, non-essential qualities (otherwise it would be redundant, and what would 'atypical' then mean?). A thing that is typical has the most usual qualities of the type in question (the defintion of 'typically' is "usually", and I agree with this). For example, a typical Gibson Les Paul guitar has two humbucker pickups and 22 frets, but there is nothing distinctive about that, since many other guitars (e.g., PRS guitars) normally have two humbucker pickups and 22 frets. 'Characteristic' seems more appropriate than 'distinctive'. Going by the definition of 'distinctive', these are not perfectly synonymous, since 'distinctive' means "characteristic of ONE person or thing, and so serving to distingush it from others". How can a feature serve to distinguish if it is also found in other things? I'm taking "serve to" to mean fulfilling the function of distinguishing by its own, rather than "helps to distinguish". To fulfil the function of distinguishing, a quality must be unique to a thing (either absolutely or within a definite collection of things being considered), I feel.

Also, I think 'distinctive' is commonly applied to objects themselves, meaning something like "very different" or "easily recognisable", rather than only features of things.

I would sincerely appreciate being corrected.



  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭

    @MitchMacKaye, Semantics makes a distinction between

    • a TYPE — a SINGLE abstraction

    • a TOKEN — one of MANY concrete objects or narrowly defined abstractions sharing the CHARACTERISTICS or QUALITIES of the TYPE

    The concept of being DISTINCTIVE lies in neither the type nor the token but in the plurality of characteristics.

    In ordinary language, nobody expects each and every characteristic of a token to be identical. In fact, if every token — every physical Gibson Les Paul guitar, for example — was identical, there would be no reason to think of it as a type. It would be just a model.

    In the technical language of Linguistics, distinctive is used to describes the effect of one of a set characteristics — known as a distinctive feature. For example, all the features of the sounds represented by B and P are identical — with one exception. The feature is voicing — allowing the vocal cords to produce a buzz. This distinctive feature makes different words our of big and pig, robe and rope etc.

    There is another feature which is different: pin has a little puff of air (aspiration) which bin lacks. However, this is not distinctive. If we pronounce pin without the little H, it's still the same word; not heard or understood as the word bin.
    A little change in the token doesn't necessarily make it a different type.

    Returning to your guitar, the pickups and the number of frets are just two of the many features of the model. They happen not to be distinctive. Nevertheless, any two physical tokens of the model are pretty sure to share a very large number of features. Each guitar has a recognisable plurality of shared features. It's when we recognise this plurality that we recognise type.

    So, in the definition you quote

    having the distinctive qualities of a particular type of person or thing

    all that's misleading is is the word the.
    Strictly interpreted it implies that a typical token has all the characteristics of its type.
    Realistically, a typical token has a recognisable critical mass of the characteristics.

    'Characteristic' seems more appropriate than 'distinctive'.

    I think it's a bit of both: qualities which characteristically serve to distinguish.

    There's more to say — much more thasn I expected. Watch this space.

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