Now that I have your attention, let me point out that we all use Latin in speech and on paper. But we don’t all use it correctly. So let’s talk about two little Latin abbreviations sprinkled liberally in our writing – what they mean and how to use them with that other little Latin abbreviation. I am referring here to i.e., e.g., and etc. What do they mean and what is their proper usage?

I find it ironic that i.e. (4 characters) is an abbreviation for id est (5 characters). Irony aside, id est means “that is”, or if you want definitions that also begin with the letter “i”, let’s go with “in other words”, “in essence” or “I explain.” What happens after i.e. is usually clarification of the generality you just posited. So for example, I might say, “I just took a day off work to go to my least favorite place, i.e., the dentist.” This would not be followed by etc. since “the dentist” clarifies “least favorite place”. I may have other non-favorite places, but the dentist is the ultimate in least favorite things. Use of i.e. narrows down and clarifies.

On the other hand, e.g. is an abbreviation for the longer Latin phrase exempli gratia meaning, “for example”. You can easily remember this because it begins with “e” as in “example.” Also, you might try to pronounce e.g. What you’ll get is “egg”; follow that with “sample” and you get “example”! “For example” would be followed by a list of things that suit the initial expression. For instance, I could say, “There are many places I’d rather not go on my day off, e.g., the accountant, the doctor, the dentist.” Notice again, I did not add etc. This is just the short list. Using e.g. enlarges.

The King of Siam (in The King and I) turned etc. into an endearing pronouncement. He used it correctly to describe the many ways that Anna always had to be physically lower than himself: “When I shall sit, you shall sit, when I shall kneel, you shall kneel, etc., etc., etc.” He didn’t start this list with “for example.” Starting with “for example” and ending with etc. would be redundant. Etc. is short for et cetera and means “and so forth, the rest, and more”. “For example”, though only two words, implies “here are a few things, there are more, but I’ll let you imagine them.” In other words, “many more” is built in.

A few other notes: i.e. and e.g. do not need to be italicized as they have become standard English usage (I only did it here for clarity) and a comma should follow. When in doubt, however, use the English – “in other words” or “for example” and you’ll know the right way to go.

Another little Latin word that seems to be causing a kerfuffle in some uses is per. In writing (and sometimes speech), many people tend to add a tiny English word first, causing many readers to grimace. If you are writing a memo and you say “As per your instructions,” you’ve gone one word too far. One critic I found views this usage as pleonastic. Isn’t that a lovely word? It means “the use of more words than necessary”! If your goal is sharp, concise writing, it is always best NOT to use more words than necessary (see my favorite little book on writing: The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White). If you want to say “according to your instructions,” simply say per. The other Latin expression using per – per se – meaning “by itself” or “intrinsically” – conforms to the rule of not being pleonastic, just as long as it is used and spelled correctly

So many Latin words and abbreviations have become part of our vocabulary that in many cases we aren’t even aware that they are Latin. What other more appropriate words would we use for abacus, ad hoc, ad lib, alias, ad nauseam, alma mater, alibi, alter ego, or appendix (and those are just some of the “a” words)? No matter what language you use, don’t make yourself persona non grata by employing solecisms, instead make every written thing your magnum opus.

P.S. (another Latin expression!) The title of this blog means “Let’s Speak Latin” and magnum opus is a large and important piece of art, music or literature, especially one regarded as the most important work of the artist or writer.