As if English wasn’t hard enough, sometimes we make it harder by not spelling out our words and using abbreviations instead. Sadly we use abbreviations incorrectly a great deal of the time, making it all the more frustrating as you’re trying to make your point and get hung up on the drama of "i.e" and "e.g". Don’t they mean the same thing? Shouldn’t they be easier to use than actually writing out, "for example"?
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For most of us, we associate both "i.e." and "e.g" with the same phrase, "for example." This isn’t technically correct, however. "i.e" is actually a Latin abbreviation for id est, which translates to "that is". "E.g", on the other hand, is a Latin abbreviation for exempli grata, which directly translates to "for the sake of example." Similar? Yes. The same? Nope.
One item that is notably absent from our very short list of abbreviations is "e.x.". Lazy writers might try to say, "Understanding different parts of grammar is critical for writing well, e.x. commas, periods and semi-colons." "E.x." might seem logical to use as an abbreviation as it is the first two letters of "example", but it’s not commonly done and readers tend to wonder how well you know the language if you’re using the wrong abbreviation when such classy Latin ones exist for this very purpose.
Easy Memory Tricks
Fortunately, you don’t need to learn Latin to figure out how these abbreviations work in a sentence. All you really need to do is remember what they translate to. "I.e." translates best into "in essence" while "e.g." translates into "example given." It’s not an accident, of course, that the more literal translations have the same starting letters as the actual abbreviation.
Memorize what the abbreviations mean using the catch phrases and then you can use them more naturally in a sentence. When you’re writing and thinking about using the abbreviation, simply say the phrase as it "should" be read to see if you’re using the abbreviation correctly.
"I just recovered from a cold, i.e., the worst virus I’ve had in a long time."
"I need to get some art supplies, e.g., colored paper, glue and markers."
Paraphrasing and Examples
As you may have noticed in the examples above, "i.e." and "e.g." are used differently in sentences.
"I.e." is used as a way to summarize or give more information. It’s also a nice way to paraphrase or even combine sentences if used correctly.
"Humans are mammals. Mammals bear live young and produce milk to feed the babies."
"Humans are mammals, i.e., organisms that bear live young and produce milk to feed the babies."
"E.g" on the other hand is used to list examples – it’s the correct way to say "e.x." Your examples should fall into a category, however, and the name of the category usually precedes the "e.g." in a sentence.
"Short-term housing offers many attractive benefits, e.g., shorter lease terms, nicely furnished units, and reasonable pricing to accommodate professional travelers."
Punctuation with Abbreviations
Using abbreviations can be tricky enough without worrying about punctuation. Fortunately, there are some simple guidelines for using "e.g" or "i.e." in a sentence. Set the abbreviation off with commas or you can use parentheses instead. Be sure to put a comma on both sides of the abbreviation as shown in the example below. Likewise, be sure to close any parentheses you use.
"I love to eat vegetables, e.g., carrots, potatoes and corn."
"Fruit is delicious (e.g., apples, oranges and grapes)."
"Kangaroos are marsupials, i.e., animals that have pouches."
"Wallabies are marsupials as well (i.e., animals, like kangaroos, that have pouches)."
Another consideration for your use of "e.g": there is a temptation to make the list indefinite by adding "etc…" on the end. Don’t. When you use the abbreviation "e.g." you’re already stating that you’re just giving a few examples, not an exhaustive list. Using "etc…" is not only repetitive then, but it detracts from the quality of your writing. And that would be sad since you’ve just mastered how to use the abbreviations correctly!
Using Abbreviations in Text
While we can all appreciate shorting things up a bit from time to time, there is a time and a place for abbreviations. When you’re writing formally, you should avoid abbreviations – it’s better to write out the phrase "for example" or something even a bit more formal such as "in the case of". For example, "In the case of apples, the fruit is red while pears tend to be yellow or even green." Notice that even when you’re writing out the words "for example" you set them off with a comma as well, just as you would with either form of the abbreviation.
So what is the right time to use the "i.e." or "e.g"? Normally you use the abbreviations when you’re writing footprints, bibliographies or in just about any form of informal writing where brevity is appreciated by readers. For formal writing and in scientific or technical writing, avoid the abbreviations and either include the "for example" phrasing in your actual sentence. Naturally there’s one more exception to the rule – don’t use "e.g." or "i.e" in phrasing for technical papers, but feel free to use common abbreviations for measurement or technical terms like DNA, cm and g.
Avoiding Common Mistakes with Abbreviations
There are common mishaps with abbreviations including "i.e." and "e.g." that even the most experienced writer can stumble over. Some of the most common mistakes and solutions are as follows:
Use articles correctly with abbreviations - Use either "a" or "an" before an abbreviation in the same way you’d use the articles before a word. "A" goes before a hard sound of the following word and "an" goes before a softer or vowel sound. For example, "a CBS special" or "an FBI team of investigators." Be sure to try each of the words and perhaps even double check common usage to see which article works better with each word.
To make an abbreviation possessive – not something you’d do with "e.g." or "i.e.", but something that happens frequently with other abbreviations - you add an "s" after the final period, and after an apostrophe. A single doctor who owns an office would be shown as "Dr.’s office." If multiple doctors own the office, you use the same punctuation rules for possessives as you would with any rule – the apostrophe goes after the "s", for example, "Dr.s’ office." Of course, a good rule of thumb if you’re confused about the possessive case is to just spell out your abbreviations, e.g. "the doctor’s office."
Avoid improper abbreviations and SMS – "The doc went thru the room, tho his office was the other way." Can you read that last sentence? Sure – but it’s obviously too casual, the tone is wrong and the word choice simply doesn’t make sense for the formality of this article. In general, unless you’re sending an instant message or texting, you can avoid any of the improper abbreviations and text codes. OMG! How ridiculous does that look? Use standard abbreviations only and be sure you don’t add any extra spaces (the letters go right next to each other) and use the proper punctuation (periods for everything but metric measurements like g, m, and mL.)
Abbreviations can enhance your writing and improve the message you’re sending to your readers, but only if you’re using them correctly. How often have you goofed when using abbreviations? Would your copy benefit from a quick check for potential mistakes? Perhaps most importantly of all – will correctly used abbreviations improve your copy and perhaps improve conversations as well?