10 Latin Abbreviations You Might Be Using Incorrectly

By Mark Nichol

Abbreviations deriving from Latin terms and phrases can be troublesome for us non-Latin speakers. Here’s the long and short of the most common short forms adopted into English from the classical language:

1. e.g.

This abbreviation of exempli gratia (“for example”) is not only often left bereft of its periods (or styled eg.), it’s also frequently confused for a similar abbreviation you’ll find below. Use e.g. (followed by a comma) to signal sample examples.

2. etc.

This sloppily formed abbreviation of et cetera (“and so forth”) is often misspelled ect., perhaps because we’re accustomed to words in which c precedes t, but not vice versa. (Curiously, Merriam-Webster spells out etcetera as such as a noun, but at the end of an incomplete list, retain the two-word form, or translate it.) A comma should precede it.

Refrain from using etc. in an e.g. list; the abbreviations are essentially redundant, and note that etc. is also redundant in a phrase that includes including.

3. et al.

This abbreviation of et alia (“and others”), used almost exclusively to substitute for the names of all but the primary author in a reference to a multiauthor publication or article but occasionally applied in other contexts, should have no period after et, because that word in particular is not an abbreviation.

Also, unlike as in the case of etc., refrain from preceding it with a comma, presumably because only one name precedes it. Fun fact: We use a form of the second word in this term — alias — to mean “otherwise known as” (adverb) or “an assumed name” (noun).

4. i.e.

This abbreviation of id est (“that is”) is, like e.g., is frequently erroneously styled without periods (or as ie.). It, followed by a comma, precedes a clarification, as opposed to examples, which e.g. serves to introduce.

5. fl.

This abbreviation of flourit (“flourished”) is used in association with a reference to a person’s heyday, often in lieu of a range of years denoting the person’s life span.

6. N.B.

This abbreviation for nota bene (“note well”), easily replaced by the imperative note, is usually styled with uppercase letters and followed by a colon.

7. per cent.

This British English abbreviation of per centum (“for each one hundred”) is now often (and in the United States always) spelled percent, as one word and without the period.

8. re

This abbreviation, short for in re (“in the matter of”) and often followed by a colon, is often assumed to be an abbreviation for reply, especially in email message headers.

9. viz.

This abbreviation of videlicet (“namely”), unlike e.g., precedes an appositive list — one preceded by a reference to a class that the list completely constitutes: “Each symbol represents one of the four elements, viz. earth, air, fire, and water.” Note the absence of a following comma.

10. vs.

This abbreviation of versus (“against”) is further abbreviated to v. in legal usage. Otherwise, the word is usually spelled out except in informal writing or in a jocular play on names of boxing or wrestling matches or titles of schlocky science fiction movies. (“In this title bout of Greed vs. Honesty, the underdog never stood a chance.”)

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


25 Responses to “10 Latin Abbreviations You Might Be Using Incorrectly”

  • Tordek

    Amusing. I always thought “re.” meant “regarding.”

  • Peter

    You’ll also see “&c.” for et cetera, though it seems to be more common in old texts for some reason (the symbol “&” is originally a handwritten form of “et”. FWIW, the old English symbol for “and” looked like a “7”)

    (And I know you’re trying to get to ten, but there must be some more common Latinate abbreviations than “fl.”, surely? 🙂 )

    @Tordek: it’s just “re”, no period (it’s not abbreviation; it’s a complete word: the ablative case of res), but in a sense it does: “regarding” is a perfectly good translation.

  • Cecily

    One usage I dislike is “E.g.” at the beginning of a sentence. I think it looks ugly, and more importantly, it usually reads better either to make it part of the preceding phrase (lower case “e”) or to start a new sentence with “For example” in full.

  • ‘nora

    At the risk of seeming like one of those people who enjoys scoring points on spelling errors in grammar rants: it’s “floruit” not “flourit.”

    My apologies. After several grueling years of Latin in graduate school these things make me twitch.

  • Rebecca

    Fantastic list! I never spelled out et cetera before. I always use ‘etc’ when I write.

  • thebluebird11

    @Cecily: I don’t think you should ever see, or use, “e.g.” at the beginning of a sentence. I can’t say I’ve ever seen that in regular writing, maybe just errors in blogs and posts or something. If you must start a sentence with “For example,” then just use the words “for example,” and don’t use “e.g.”
    For the record, in my own work (mostly medical transcription, these days), I eliminate the periods in many cases, and specifically for eg and ie. That is partly because I dislike the clutter (I often leave out periods after Dr, Mr, Mrs, etc, as well) and partly because at least for the abbreviation i.e., my word expander will automatically correct the small letter “i” to a capital every time, and “I.e.” doesn’t work. OTOH, if I were writing really formal writing (let’s say, maybe some legal document or maybe a book manuscript), I would put all the periods in.
    @nora: I for one am glad you caught that! I am happy to let you score the points! I had never seen that abbreviation and would not want to misspell it in the future if I had to use it!

  • Cristiana Garita

    I hope this doesn’t sound obnoxious, but I think number 5 is floruit, not flourit, right?

    Your posts are of great value to everyone who wants to write well in English, thanks for sharing! 🙂

  • Alexandre Piccolo

    I’d like to point out a little correction (too small, to tell the truth): “et alia” in Latin means “and other things”, because the adjective pronoun “alia”, in this case, is in a neuter plural form (plural of “aliud”, to be precise). If we’d like to say “and others” (meaning people, not objects), we must use in Latin “et alii” (for men) or “et aliae” (for women only).

    So, I’d rather say that the “et al.” abbreviation really stands for “et alii” when substituting names in an authorship roll, as said.

    But the whole post is great, very informative; as I’ve said, this was just a little (too small…) correction.

  • thebluebird11

    @AlexP: How nice then that we can abbreviate it as “et al.,” and not have to be concerned about what the abbreviation “al” means, therefore not geting into the gender thing. I’m not a major feminist, women’s libber or anything, but if a better word exists to express a concept, I’m all for it. In other words, humankind instead of mankind (when women are included); people instead of men (ditto); etc. So if there are women in the “alii,” let’s just say “al.” and leave it at that!

  • Carole Raschella

    Maybe I’m missing something, but how can etc. and e.g. be redundant when one means “for example,“ and the other means “and so forth”?

    Another pet peeve: license plate holders that say the driver is a graduate of a specific college, and read “XXXX Alumni.” Unless the entire family is a graduate of the school, shouldn’t it read “alumnus” or “alumna”?

  • Andrew Toynbee

    Would the correct form of quad erat demonstrandum be Q.E.D. or q.e.d?

  • Mark Nichol

    Andrew:

    For a reason I have been unable to identify, this mathematical or philosophical equivalent of “So there!” is always capitalized.

  • Paul Russell

    Here in Southeast Asia people frequently write a list of items as “a, b, c, and etc.” I just can’t persuade them to drop the “and.”

    I confess though, I’ve never seen “percent” written as “per cent.” Must remember that one.

    –paul

  • Mae

    Humor: QED is capitalized because by the time we actually get to the point in proofs where we can write it, we’re “shouting” for joy. QED!

    (And I almost never see it as Q.E.D. with periods between.)

  • Mark Nichol

    Carole:

    The use of e.g. implies an incomplete list, and appending etc. to a list has the same function, so each is extraneous when the other is employed.

    The parties responsible for apparently using alumni as a singular term might argue that possession of the license plate holder indicates membership in that collective group, rather than incorrectly identifying a single (though not necessarily singular) person as a plural entity. And distinguishing between alumnus and alumna would necessitate two sets of inventory and an employee stationed at the university bookstore’s license-plate-holder display rack full time to explain the difference.

  • Peter

    The use of e.g. implies an incomplete list, and appending etc. to a list has the same function, so each is extraneous when the other is employed.

    Not necessarily: make a list of ten arbitrary numbers, e.g., 83, 17, 252, etc.

    (here “83, 17, 252, etc.” is a single example introduced by “e.g.”; there are not ten numbers listed, so “etc.” makes sense)

  • Mark Nichol

    Peter:

    Good point about the rare valid tag team of e.g. and etc. in this case, though you should also point out that such usage constitutes an exception, not the rule.

  • Chad

    Regarding “per cent”, I moved from the US to Canada and have had a hell of a time retraining myself to write it as two words. Standard Canadian usage is “per cent”, i.e., two words, no period.

    Carole & Mark:

    As a communications manager at a university, I can tell you that the question of the use of “alumni” is a frequent one. Increasingly frequently, we refer to an individual with the gender neutral term, “alum”, and leave it at that.

  • Melissa Thelemaque

    Certainly this is a useful article.
    This could have been more useful if examples were included with each tip. Visuals are often helpful with burning the rule into the brain.

  • Precise Edit

    “etc.” isn’t logical when you start with “e.g.” If “e.g.” means, roughly, “for example” or “examples,” then the items that follow “e.g. compose a limited set of examples. “Etc.,” and the meaning it implies, cannot be a component of a limited set of examples. The problem isn’t redundancy but logic.

    Hurrah for the reminder on the comma following “e.g.” and “i.e.” in use–I frequently (maybe more often than not) see it left out. Same with the period after “al.”

    And, of course, the confusion between “e.g.” and “i.e.” is a particular problem we encounter. Some writers seem to select one and use it for everything, even though they often mis-communicate their ideas.

    “Fl.” is a new one to me. Thanks.

    All in all–I great list with great reminders.

  • Parkerized

    As to the question of “P.C.” gender specific language. To insist on androgynous corrections of ancient text and current language, generally suffer from low self-esteem or wish to deny the innate and exquisite differences in the respective genders.

    Per cent clarified a lifetime struggle with the concept.

    Thank you!

  • Deb Alden-Terry

    I love people who love this subject as much as I. I was forced into 3 years of Latin by my mother (who had been a Latin Teacher). Had it not been for her tutelage, I never would have gotten through the third year. She was so much more than just my Mother and she was determined that I would learn whether I wanted to or not!

    I appreciate all of you who speak my lauguage, which is English. I never would have been able to learn all that I have without the knowledge of the Latin, Greek and French influences in the english language.

  • Vince

    One I always fine useful but rarely see is “c.” which is the abbreviation for the Latin ‘circa’ for around/approximately. It is normally used when referring to dates/time-periods (e.g. “c. 1822” or “c. 1750 – 1790”) but it is applicable to anything using numbers really (e.g. “c. 12pm”, “c. $200”, “c. 50”). I particularly find it use it useful when emailing, text messaging and/or tweeting…

  • Hilary

    ‘Eg’ doesn’t have to have a full-stop after each of the letter – Oxford University recommends ‘eg’ instead of ‘e.g.’ Who are you to say otherwise?

    Styling ‘vs’ ‘vs.’ makes no sense – whilst it is an abbreviation, there’s nothing after the ‘s’, and thus it should be considered wrong if ‘eg.’ is considered wrong (except logically the latter would be ‘more correct’).

  • Kennita Watson

    Deb: while “I love people who love this subject as much as I.” may be correct, it sounds horribly pretentious. It would be better to say “I love people who love this subject as much as I do.”

    Hilary: The consensus seems to be that “vs” is a correct abbreviation of “versus” in British English, whereas “vs.” is used in American English. And for the sake of our studio audience, let’s reiterate that “eg” and “eg.” are both incorrect: the appropriate abbreviation is “e.g.”.

Leave a comment: