I before e … unless you really mean e.g.

Tucked away in the corner of my library, not far from the yearbooks, are my Latin books. I have a copy of Virgil’s Aeneid, Cicero’s Orations Against Catiline, and a little book of lyric poetry by Catullus and Horace. The poetry is especially close to my heart, but all of it brings back pleasant memories.

I went on a job interview once at a law firm in South Carolina, where one of the attorneys, no doubt a classmate’s parent, asked me in a really superior, self-congratulatory tone, “Well, what are you going to do with all that Latin?”

Back then, I couldn’t answer him, but I’m sure the look on my face – the do-you-really-mean-for-me-to-respond-to-that-ridiculous-question look – probably ensured I wouldn’t get the job. Today, I’d have told that guy that mastery of Latin, to the extent anyone can be said to master it, builds vocabulary, fosters graceful sentence construction, makes all other languages easier to learn, and prevents misspellings in English. Anything that makes one’s own language easier to learn, I think, is worth investing in.

I don’t want to give away all of Latin’s secrets today. I just want to focus on one: the difference between i.e. and e.g. I haven’t had much trouble with it because if you prick me, I bleed Latin. But I must be more compassionate toward those who have not shared that experience.

Part of the reason i.e. and e.g. pose such a challenge is that their meanings are awfully close to each other. Let’s go through both of them nice and slowly.

I.e. stands for id est, or that is. You should not see it capitalized unless it appears in this context; i.e., the writer is talking about it and not actually using it.

See what I did there? The i.e. says I’m about to provide specificity. It’s here to signal the answer to the question, “What do you mean?” It precedes an explanation.

E.g. is a little different. It stands for exempli gratia, or for the sake of example. You’re going to use it to provide at least one example but not a complete or restrictive list of them. Consider a shopping list – but think of it as a list for someone you trust to shop without direction. Your list is meant to push the shopper in the right direction while leaving room for the occasional judgment call. It still provides loads of guidance. “Magazines, e.g., Men’s Health, Details” is different from “Magazines, e.g., Vogue, Elle.” Neither list is restrictive. If the shopper on the first list runs across an Esquire or a Men’s Fitness, she should feel okay about picking it up. If the list maker only wanted those two magazines, she would just have put them there, without the less specific “magazines.”

Do not use etc. with e.g. E.g. is only intended to provide a couple of examples, so to use etc., which indicates an incomplete list, would be redundant. E.g. tells the reader the list is incomplete.

So do you feel like a Latin scholar now? No? Good. I don’t want all of you to know how to use videlicet. Not right now, anyway. You should have to fight through deponents to earn that privilege.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style every month. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.


3 thoughts on “I before e … unless you really mean e.g.

  • Hi Lexi! Another insightful and informative post. And I stand accused of confusing i.e. and e.g. with an inclination to err on the side of never using e.g. because I didn’t understand it. So, would it be an incorrect trick in lieu of knowing Latin to differentiate the two as: i.e. for In Explanation and e.g. for Examples Given? Seems they’d work. I await correction or confirmation.

  • I never took Latin, but I did take six years of French! Does that count?? 🙂 Great post, Lexi. I see these misused all the time. Somehow, somewhere I learned the actual meanings of both, and since then have been able to keep them straight in my head. I love Denise’s tricks too!

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