How and when do you write etc, ie and eg?

Will SGenerally we advise giving Latin a wide berth when it comes to writing work documents or emails. There are exceptions, of course. Lawyers depend on it as a kind of technical shorthand among colleagues. (Some Latin has even entered common usage – alibi, for example.) So do doctors. But using it when writing to people outside your field is a recipe for confusion.

And yet millions of us regularly use not just Latin but Latin abbreviations without so much as a second thought. We’re talking here about etc, ie and eg. All three are common in even the most informal communications (such as text messaging), and all three can lead to a minor crisis of confidence, including about how to punctuate them.

We’ll come to punctuation in a bit. But let’s deal with how to use them first.

And other things = etc

Few people get this one wrong. It generally comes at the end of a sentence (though not always) and means ‘and the rest’ or ‘and others’. (The full Latin is et cetera.) A teacher from my dim and distant schooldays once pointed out that, as the term already contains the word ‘and’, you should never write ‘and etc’ (which means ‘and and others’). She was right to be worried: this mistake is increasingly common in written English.

That is = ie

Probably more people confuse the other two terms, which mean quite different things. If you want to say ‘that is’, you need ie (it stands for id est, which is just Latin for ‘that is’).

You use it when you want to define something more clearly or eliminate doubt about what you’re talking about. For example:

‘If you want to discuss the team meeting that you couldn’t attend (ie the meeting last Wednesday morning), let me know and I’ll give you a call.’

Try re-reading it but saying ‘that is’ instead of ‘ie’. It means the same thing.

For example = eg

If you want ‘for example’, on the other hand, then use ‘eg’. (It stands for the Latin exempli gratia, which means the same thing.)

It’s useful when you want to make it clear, in passing, the kind of thing you’re talking about. For example:

‘We have regular team meetings to discuss what everyone in the business is doing (eg recent successes or ongoing projects).’

Do you need full stops/periods?

Most style guides recommend writing abbreviations without full stops. It’s not wrong to include them, but it does look a little old-fashioned these days.

However, some style guides do say that ‘eg’ and ‘ie’ should have full stops. (And to emphasise that fact, my grammar checker has just ‘helpfully’ underlined those terms now that I’ve typed them.)

Sometimes even dictionaries don’t help. Collins English Dictionary, for example, says that e.g., eg. and eg are all acceptable. But confusingly, it lists only i.e. (not ie or ie.), which makes no sense.

In short: you can write etc, ie and eg with or without full stops. But make sure you pick one style for all abbreviations and stick to it.

If you’re unsure, ditch the Latin

If you’re ever unsure, just use ‘for example’ or ‘that is’ instead. And ‘etc’ is best avoided too if you can. Words like ‘including’, ‘include’ or ‘among others’ make for clearer sentences. ‘The actions we’re taking include A, B and C’ is better than ‘we’re doing A, B, C etc.’ Leave out the Latin abbreviations and your writing will be every bit as precise as if you had used them, and you’ll probably communicate your message more effectively.

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