By Michael Becker
Latin abbreviations are great. Not only are they almost universally recognized, but they also lend an air of “official-ness” to your writing. They make it look and sound more scientific or authoritative.
So, if you like these abbreviations, you may not like my next advice: Drop them whenever possible. Why? Two reasons.
First — and pardon me for being blunt here — using abbreviations where you could use words is lazy. Rather than deciding how best to incorporate those words or examples into your sentence, you chuck them in between a pair of parentheses and let an abbreviation do your work. Take the time to do it right, for Pete’s sake.
Okay, a more serious addition to the “lazy” factor is that lazy things are often a gateway to addiction. What is mean is, once you get a taste for abbreviations, you may decide to sprinkle them liberally throughout your writing. When a reader comes upon too many of these in a document (and I would say that more than one in every two pages is too much) the reader starts getting distracted by the abbreviations. And attracting attention is the opposite of what abbreviations are supposed to do.
My second reason for advising against Latin abbreviations harkens back to what H.W. and F.G. Fowler wrote about them in their classic The King’s English, “No one should use these who is not sure that he will not expose his ignorance by making mistakes with them.” In other words, writers (and readers) are often confused about what they mean. Take for example two of the most abused Latin abbreviations, i.e. and e.g.
Most people use the two interchangeably to mean “for example.” But that’s not exactly correct. The abbreviation e.g. stands for exempli gratia, which means “for example,” so you’re good to go on that front. However, i.e. stands for id est, which means “that is” — not quite the same.
So, if you must use these Latin abbreviations, use them correctly. A good way to remember how is to think of i.e. as standing for “in effect” or “in other words.” Then think of e.g. as “example given.” Do this, and you’ll never confuse the two again.
Oh, and as one last style note: neither i.e. nor e.g. gets italicized, even though they are foreign language terms. That’s because they’re used so widely in English these days that we just drop the italics.
About the author: Lauren Cerretti is the Graduate Writing Tutor at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana.