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Editing Tip: Relatively

  • The term relatively, most commonly defined as meaning “in comparison,” can be confusing to use
  • ‘Relatively’ already implies comparison, so it does not need to be used with a comparative (-er) adjective form
  • ‘Relatively’ can also be defined as ‘slightly,’ but this usage is not preferred in scientific writing

The term relatively, most commonly defined as meaning “in comparison.”

Usage examples

  • In light of the previous trial’s results, the levels detected in our study are relatively high.

In other words, in comparison with the previously determined levels, the newly determined levels are higher. Note that in this example, the adjective high is used instead of the comparative adjective higher; as both comparative adjectives and the term relatively imply comparison, use of both would be redundant. As a result, an acceptable alternative to the above sentence would be

  • In light of the previous trial’s results, the levels detected in our study are higher.
  • Not: In light of the previous trial’s results, the levels detected in our study are relatively higher.

Other common comparative adjectives include lower, more + an adjective (as in more accurate), less + an adjective (as in less accurate), better, worse, and numerous adjectives ending in “-er” (e.g., brighter, darker, thinner, thicker). In all cases, these adjective should only be employed to make a comparison independent of the word relatively. Otherwise, more absolute terms should be used (e.g., relatively + high, low, meaningful, meaningless, good, bad).

Other meanings

Certain dictionaries also define relatively as meaning “somewhat” or “slightly.” However, this is less common usage, especially in scientific writing, which tends to favor more unambiguous and precise phrasing. Therefore, consider using relatively only for the types of comparisons mentioned above so as not to confuse your readers.

Please email us with any questions or comments about this tip. Best of luck with your writing!

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