We see and use the abbreviations ie, eg, and etc in documents so often that we can forget what they really mean and what the purpose of each one is.
We all know that ie means ‘that is’, eg means ‘for example’, and etc is short for ‘etcetera’, but aside from using them as a written alternative to the verbal “um”, what is their purpose, and how are they different from one another? Should we use them as much as we do?
Et cetera is a Latin phrase, meaning “and the rest of such things”.
We often use etcetera, or etc for short, at the end of a list to show that there are other instances of the things we’re listing, but for brevity we’re not going to include them in this list.
How often do we really have other instances in mind when we write “, etc.” though? And how often do we use it as a way to wind up a line of thought so we can move on to the next?
If I’m reading something, and the author finishes their (very interesting) point with “, etc”, I have one of two reactions:
- I want to know more, to pursue the point and find out exactly what comes under the heading “etc” in what they’re talking about (which clearly can’t happen, unless they’re someone I can call up and ask about it)
- I feel like they’ve lost interest in their own point, so they’ve airily waved a hand to draw a veil over the thought, and moved on to something more interesting.
Using “etc” can make it feel like a list is trailing off, and the point being illustrated can feel weaker or less certain because of it.
Next time you start to write “etc”, think about whether there really are other points that you’re choosing not to list, or whether you’re typing it out of habit. If it’s the latter, consider whether it might make your writing stronger to leave it out.
That is (ie)
Ie is short for id est in Latin, which means, unsurprisingly, “that is”. It’s used before a clarification of the point that’s just been made, or a rewording of it to help the reader understand the point better.
Using ie helps to make your point more precise by clarifying it further – it funnels down the understanding.
For example (eg)
Eg is short for the Latin exempli gratia, which means “for example”. Use it before an example to explain the point you’ve just made.
Using eg helps you to illustrate your point by showing some of the things it includes, so that readers can identify further examples for themselves; it aids understanding by listing one or more of the possibilities.
What’s the difference between ie and eg?
If both ie and eg are used to help make your point clearer, how are they actually different from one another? It might help if we use each one at the end of the same sentence, to show how they change the purpose of that sentence.
- Many New Zealand trees are evergreen, ie [that is], they keep their leaves in winter.
- Many New Zealand trees are evergreen, eg [for example], rimu, kahikatea, karaka, ngaio, and tii.
The first example uses ie to be more precise about what the first half of the sentence is saying; the second example uses eg to illustrate some examples of trees are evergreen.
Alternatives to ie, eg, and etc
If you find you’re using these a lot in your writing, sometimes it can be helpful to use some alternative phrases, as shown below. Using these may also help you remember the difference between these abbreviations.
- that is
- which means [that]
- in essence
- essentially, this means [that]
- in other words
- for example (write it out in full instead)
- to illustrate this
- some examples include
- and so on
But think hard about whether you need an “etc”, and if including it strengthens or weakens your point.
(Note that using full stops around ie and eg is a matter of house style; in this post I’ve chosen not to use them.)