i.e. and e.g.: You’re not writing in Latin, so why are you using them?

i.e. and e.g.: What are they? Why do we use them? What do they mean? And why don’t we just get rid of them?

A small issue in a larger project recently got me thinking about this topic. To put it bluntly, an author who had otherwise produced a manuscript that was clear and easy to read, using plain and lively language with a minimum of clichés, jargon, and academic English, had chosen to liberally sprinkle one or two chapters with uses of i.e. and e.g.

I didn’t think much of it at the time, but later it nagged at me. Why had the author done this, I wondered? Because (I knew) it seemed appropriate. To a great many writers, i.e. and e.g. are just two more tools in the box, ready to be used when needed. The more common concern is using them correctly (e.g. = for example; i.e. = that is) and not confusing them. It’s a very common error. But many of those same writers, who strive for clarity, have become so familiar with these terms that they don’t recognize they are not only cliché-like in their overuse, but that their use is actually a kind of pretentious faux academic English.

I can easily understand how writers of a certain age (…anyone over 40?) will resist the suggestion to stop using them. They formed their understanding of the written word in an earlier era: pre-internet time. The conventions of academic writing (and pretty much all writing) were different. The differences are in many cases small and subtle, at least until you get beneath the surface and begin to understand what’s going on. But those differences are real, and like the infamous butterfly effect, even small and subtle things can accumulate.

It seems to me that using e.g. and i.e. falls into this category. By themselves, maybe they’re not so bad. But they can quickly become symptoms in a broader diagnosis of a greater out-of-touch state (dare we say cluelessness?) about contemporary style and best practice.

Which is why when I spent a little time thinking on and researching this issue, I rapidly came to the obvious conclusion: e.g. and i.e. should not be used. Kick them out of your writing, and don’t let them back in, no matter how hard they bang on the door.

Of course, I wondered if any of the most widely-used style guides had already reached this same conclusion. A little checking showed that some have.

In its coverage of i.e. and e.g., the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS, 16th ed,) suggests that “The English equivalents are preferable in formal prose; Chicago style is to use these two-character abbreviations only within parentheses or in notes.” (5.220). CMS 17 is due out any day, and I’ll be sure to note if they move further.

The Associated Press Stylebook (AP Style, 2017 ed.) makes no recommendation.

The MLA Handbook (MLA, 2016, 8th ed.) offers no recommendation.

Garner’s Modern English Usage (GMEU, 2016) gives the best explanations and descriptions of the terms and their use, and also provides good usage advice. For e.g.: “it is best confined to lists, parenthetical matter, and citations rather than in text, where some substitute such as for example is more natural.” (p.322) For i.e.: “the phrase that is or the word namely is more comprehensible to the average reader,” with a comment almost verbatim to that for e.g. (p.480). This is, by the way, similar to the advice that GMEU provides for both et al. and etc.

(This is pretty close to what I’d expected to find in these sources. I assumed CMS would suggest against them except in academic prose, that GMEU would give the best explanation and suggest against them, and that AP would still be playing catch-up and not have any suggestion. MLA, meanwhile, because of its heavy academic focus, would not see the forest from the trees and would embrace them. When you spend enough time in the various guides, you develop a good feel for their general inclinations.)

But what about other authorities, or at least other style guides? That’s a more difficult online search task than you might assume, but a few things turned up.

Prompted by the fact that web reader programs for the visually disabled have problems reading eg (the Brits generally don’t use periods with these abbreviations), the British government’s style guide for all of its official online material decided just over a year ago to essentially ban eg and avoid ie. They state: “We promote the use of plain English on GOV.UK. We advocate simple, clear language.” Going one step further, they also recommend avoiding etc.

Few other sources are so explicit. Most, when discussing e.g. and i.e., treat them as if they’re as necessary as periods and capital letters and offer no advice on replacing or avoiding them. One source–after a lengthy description of how to use them, how to remember which is which, and so on–notes that “you can, of course, simply not ever use them.”

I found one source that was willing to make this recommendation 11 years ago. On her Business Writing blog, Lynn Gaertner-Johnston determined way back in 2006 that only 10% of the students in her business writing classes could correctly define i.e., leading her to ask “As a business writer, would you use an abbreviation that only 10 percent of your readers understand?” Her answer: “I would not–and that’s why I never use i.e.” I second the motion. She didn’t go quite so far with e.g., recommending only that it be used
sparingly. I wonder if, more than a decade on, her opinion has changed.

A brief–and my guess is largely overlooked–post on the American Copy Editors Society website in 2012 also suggested “you should avoid i.e. and e.g.

The Oatmeal, which has produced some very clever and memorable grammar cartoons over the years, offers solid advice on how to use the two terms, but doesn’t recognize that they shouldn’t be used at all.

Above, I mentioned that GOV.UK style also frowns on etc. Etc. had not been on my radar when I began drafting this blog post: I planned only to make a case for why e.g. and i.e. (and maybe other Latin creatures usually seen in footnotes, such as op.cit., loc.cit., and ibid) should be, ahem, eschewed. But, of course, if I’m going to suggest that some Latinisms be avoided I should probably suggest that they all go. I’ll stick by my guns on this and say: “yes, get rid of etc. too!”

However, while I’m willing to argue that there is no situation where e.g. or i.e. are absolutely required, there might still be occasions when etc. is the best tool for the job. Declaring an absolute prohibition is an untenable position. GMEU agrees, declaring that “it would be foolish to prohibit etc. outright…the writer might justifiably use etc.” but “a substitute such as and others is usually a better choice.” (p.349)

Latin is a dead language. It’s long past the time that writers in English put e.g., i.e., and even etc. to rest.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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3 Responses to i.e. and e.g.: You’re not writing in Latin, so why are you using them?

  1. vearjohn says:

    1. “ie” and “eg” are common popular colloquial words.
    2. If anyone doesn’t know what they mean, they’re pretty stupid.
    3. But, it is time we cut out their full stops.

    • When something is “colloquial” it is informal, conversational, or appropriate to spoken language.

      By definition, e.g. and i.e. are the opposite: they are formal, academic, and meant for written use. Using them in speech is a pretentious flourish.

      They’re also not very common or popular, as a review of word use frequency data shows. According to COCA (http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/), for example, “i.e.” is the 2,698th most frequently used word in American English. The term accounts for roughly 34 of every million words in their database.

      However, that ranking is probably too high. COCA deliberately balances its total word count across five source categories, and i.e. is overrepresented in academic writing: more than 84% of the uses come from the academic portion of the corpus. Without those, this term would place south of 11,000, used about 5 times per million words. That would make it only slightly more common than “lest,” which few would refer to as common, popular, or colloquial.

      We could have a very long discussion about how this data is generated, what it means, how it can (and can’t, should and shouldn’t) be used. That’s probably a good topic for a future post.

      The only thing I’ll elaborate for this note is that all this rank and frequency data is useful only when you have an understanding of what word use really looks like: and it’s a very steeply descending curve. The use of all words drops dramatically after the most frequent ones. The frequency difference between the #1 word (“the”) and the #1,000 word is enormous (about 600 times). You have to go from word 1,000 to around word 62,000 to see a similar frequency decline. The drop from there to the end of the list is only about 5 times. The difference between words around the 80,000 mark and those around the 100,000 mark is only about double. Most of the 100,000+ captured words are used so infrequently that the data in the lower portions of the list is only statistically significant when it’s been collected in massive volumes–which COCA has done.

  2. Adan Ramie says:

    I agree with the use of “plain, clear language” as well, though I had never thought about it or made a conscious decision. I guess it was just a natural progression from academic papers to fiction writing! Thanks for the food for thought today.

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