Sign Up For Our Free Grammar E-Newsletter

All About etc.

The abbreviation etc. is from the Latin et cetera, which means “and other things.” It appears at the end of a list when there is no point in giving more examples. Writers use it to say, “And so on” or “I could go on” or “You get the idea.”

In American English, etc. ends in a period, even midsentence. It is traditionally enclosed in commas when it doesn’t end a sentence, but nowadays the comma that follows etc. is disappearing. The 1979 edition of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Styleinsists that etc. be followed by a comma: Letters, packages, etc., should go here. But Bryan A. Garner’s 1998 edition of A Dictionary of Modern American Usageadvises against a following comma, saying it is “more logical” to omit it: Carrots, potatoes, broccoli, etc. have the advantage of being vegetables. Garner’s point is that if we replaced etc. with something like and celerywe would not follow celery with a comma.

All authorities agree that etc. is out of place in formal writing. The Chicago Manual of Style says that etc. “should be avoided, though it is usually acceptable in lists and tables, in notes, and within parentheses.” John B. Bremner’s Words on Words says, “Use it informally, if you really must.” Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful Writer says the term “has no place in writing that has any literary pretensions.”

Do not use etc. with a “list” that gives only one example; there should be at least two items listed. And never use etc. at the end of a series that begins with for example, e.g., including, such as, and the like, because these terms make etc. redundant: they already imply that the writer could offer other examples.

Every so often you’ll see and etc. But et means “and,” so and etc. would mean “and and so on.” Also to be avoided is etc., etc., because why do that, why do that?

Since cetera means “other things,” etc. should not be used when listing persons. For that, we have et al. (note the period), from the Latin et alii, meaning “and other people”: The Romantic poets Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, et al., strove to capture man’s mystic relationship with nature.

All the rules for etc. apply to et al., including its unsuitability for serious writing.

 

Pop Quiz

Fix what needs fixing. Answers are below.

1. The collection includes precious gemstones such as diamonds, rubies, emeralds, etc.

2. All our favorite characters, Jimmy, Slick Sam, Annie from Miami, etc., were at the party.

3. People love to watch the award shows (the Academy Awards, etc.) and try to guess who will win.

4. Many regard fine literature—novels, essays, poetry, etc—as essential to a useful life.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. The collection includes precious gemstones such as diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. OR The collection includes precious gemstones: diamonds, rubies, emeralds, etc. (Never use etc. at the end of a list introduced by such as)

2. All our favorite characters, Jimmy, Slick Sam, Annie from Miami, et al., were at the party. (Do not use etc. to refer to humans)

3. People love to watch the award shows (the Academy Awards, the Grammies, etc.) and try to guess who will win. (Do not use etc. after only one example)

4. Many regard fine literature—novels, essays, poetry, etc.—as essential to a useful life. (In American English, do not use etc. without a period)

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Wednesday, October 15, 2014, at 1:53 pm


i.e. vs. e.g.

Be honest now: do you know the difference between i.e.and e.g.? A lot of people think the two are virtually the same, but if they were, we’d only need one of them. So let’s break it down, once and for all.

Writers use i.e. to restate the subject at hand: A good Samaritan (i.e., my neighbor Blake Smith) drove my cat to the vet. In that sentence, i.e. tells the reader exactly who the “good Samaritan” was. One should use i.e. to identify, amplify, clarify, specify, or any combination thereof. Its purpose is to ensure that the reader knows beyond a doubt what or whom the writer is talking about.

The initialism i.e. is from the Latin id est, which means “that is.” In American English the and the are each followed by a period, and i.e. should be followed by a comma. Many authorities, including the redoubtable Chicago Manual of Style, discourage the use of i.e. in formal writing, advising that is instead. If for any reason a writer deems it necessary to use i.e., it should appear in parentheses: Winston Churchill spoke often of his “black dog” (i.e., his gloomy periods).

Writers use e.g. to give specific examples of the subject at hand. It is short for exempli gratia, a Latin phrase meaning “for example.” The e and the g are each followed by a period, and e.g., like i.e., should be followed by a comma. In formal writing it is advisable to write for example or for instance instead of e.g. But if a writer insists on it, e.g. and the example(s) that follow it should be placed in parentheses: High-fiber foods (e.g., lentils and broccoli) are good for you.

Sometimes the right choice requires careful thought, as in this case: Certain members of my family (i.e., Mom and Uncle Jake) are vegetarians. In that sentence, the i.e. tells us that Mom and Uncle Jake are the only family members who don’t eat meat. But what if we replace i.e. with e.g.: Certain members of my family (e.g., Mom and Uncle Jake) are vegetarians. Now the sentence means that there are other vegetarians in the family besides Mom and Uncle Jake.

That is no small difference, and it highlights the dissimilarity of i.e. and e.g. Confusing one for the other can result in misunderstandings at best and nonsense at worst. So remember to use i.e. when further identifying a subject, and use e.g. when giving specific examples of a subject. A handy memory aid: e = “example,” i = “identify.”

 

Pop Quiz

Which is the right choice? Answers are below.

1. Alicia likes Shakespeare’s classic plays (i.e.,/e.g., Othello and The Merchant of Venice).
2. Raul described geometry as “a fierce beast to handle” (i.e.,/e.g., a difficult course).
3. Many great directors (i.e.,/e.g., Orson Welles and John Huston) had a fondness for black-and-white films.
4. The absurdity of war is the subject of several major novels (i.e.,/e.g., Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five).
5. The standard discount (i.e.,/e.g., 10 percent) applies.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Alicia likes Shakespeare’s classic plays (e.g., Othello and The Merchant of Venice).
2. Raul described geometry as “a fierce beast to handle” (i.e., a difficult course).
3. Many great directors (e.g., Orson Welles and John Huston) had a fondness for black-and-white films.
4. The absurdity of war is the subject of several major novels (e.g., Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five).
5. The standard discount (i.e., 10 percent) applies.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, October 7, 2014, at 3:25 pm


Wails from My Inbox

My fellow word nerds often send me cheerfully exasperated emails. I’d like to share a few of them with you …

• My recent aggravation is the mispronunciation of the word “divisive” by many people I respect. They prefer to say “divissive,” with a short rather than a long i. These otherwise articulate people are grating on my sensitive nerves. 

This pronunciation has become epidemic in the last decade. Numerous office holders and just about all the political pundits of the airwaves seem to have simultaneously anointed “di-viss-ive”—and I wonder why. I have a glut of dictionaries around the house; some are very recent, some go back seventy years. Only my notoriously permissive 1999 Webster’s New World acknowledges this renegade alternative pronunciation. All the others allow but one option: “di-vice-ive.” I guess I can understand how “di-viss-ive” could happen: by extrapolating from divisioninstead of divide. Still, it’s always jolting to see yet another tsunami of ignorance wipe out a long-established usage in a heartbeat.

• What really gets me is the forgotten use of “an.” As in “I went to the zoo and saw a elephant” instead of “an elephant.” Have you noticed? 

I hear and see this all the time now. Just recently my local paper reported on “a entertaining and informative work.” Maybe an innocent typo, but the way things are going, who knows? My guess is we have the sports world to thank for this, with an assist from hip-hop culture.

It’s often employed for emphasis. You’ll hear an athlete-turned-analyst such as the peerless Charles Barkley say something like, “They have a actual point guard.” When you say two short vowels in succession like that, without the in an to smooth things out, you tend to pause after the first a, and that break emphasizes “actual point guard,” and makes it stand out in the sentence. This can be effective, but it’s still an illiteracy. And this annoying little habit is not confined to ex-athletes and DJs. I hear it more and more from a lot of old pros who seem to find it fresh, or “street,” and are doing it deliberately.

• When people writing or speaking cannot think of a graceful way to connect one part of a sentence to another, they insert “in terms of.” I call it the Universal Joint of English. 

The more one thinks about in terms of, the less sense it makes. Still, this is true of a lot of idioms. In terms of is OK when used sparingly. But try listening to a radio or TV broadcaster for ten minutes without hearing at least one in terms of. Too many people overuse it; some say it twice in one sentence. The least they could do is break up the monotony withwhen it comes to or in regard to—sometimes as foror simply about works just fine, too.

Once you start noticing these verbal tics and crutches, they rankle like a roomful of sneezing in-laws. I recall one commentator who started every other sentence with “The, uh”: “What’s your favorite Shakespeare play?” “The, uh … Hamlet.”

I got to where I could predict his next The, uh with ninety percent accuracy. I would just wait, teeth grinding, for that inevitable The, uh and not hear anything else he said.

Tom Stern

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Thursday, October 2, 2014, at 7:21 am


A House Is Not a Hone

When a spurious phrase gets too prevalent, we language watchdogs start barking. Today we’ll discuss two errant expressions that make us growl and howl.

We start with hone in, an all-too-common faux idiom. Since we first alerted you to this solecism sixteen months ago, it has only gained momentum. Here are some recent online examples: “Psychologists hone in on what not to wear.” “Cities hone in on the promise of big data.” “Researchers hone in on autism-causing genes.”

The correct term is home in. To home in, like zero in, is to focus on, get something firmly in your sights, get to the heart of the matter. The home in home in refers not to a residence, but to a goal or target. The word is also used this way in sentences like We’re home free and He drove his point home. In the game of baseball you achieve your goal by reaching home plate.

In the late twentieth century, hone in gained a foothold. In this era of multitasking, it isn’t hard to see why. The letters m and n look and sound similar when one is distracted. Not only that, hone in almost makes sense. To hone is to sharpen a blade. By extension, it means to improve, refine, or perfect: Constant practice helped him hone his writing skills.

So, some argue, why couldn’t hone in mean “to sharpen (narrow) one’s focus”? That rationale seems like a stretch. Home in has been in circulation for decades;hone in is an inferior imitation.

Our second culprit is a hard road to hoe, which a lot of people say when they mean a hard row to hoe (i.e., a difficult task). Like hone in, the phrase a hard road to hoe almost seems acceptable, but it falls apart upon closer inspection.

The metaphorical row in hard row to hoe is a more or less straight line of growing plants. A farmer uses his hoe to cultivate the soil and keep it weed-free so the plants may thrive. A road handles a lot of foot traffic and takes a beating from bicycles and motorized vehicles. No one but a lunatic would want to hoe a road.

Amazingly, hone in and hard road to hoe have their supporters. But those who defend these aberrations on the basis of “close enough” are doing a disservice not only to the language but to themselves. They should aim higher.

 

Pop Quiz

The sentences below are “almost” acceptable. Can you fix them? Answers are below.

1. Most athletes deport themselves like gentlemen.
2. Verus and his army brought back a terrible petulance, which spread through the whole empire.
3. His capacity for hard liquor is incredulous.
4. She’s really tough; she acts as if she’s Judge Judy and executioner.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Most athletes comport themselves like gentlemen.
2. Verus and his army brought back with them a terrible pestilence, which spread through the whole empire.
3. His capacity for hard liquor is incredible.
4. She’s really tough; she acts as if she’s judge, jury, and executioner.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, September 23, 2014, at 4:20 pm


Rules and Preferences

There were fervent protests from readers reacting to “Old Superstitions Die Hard.” The article established that the relative pronoun that refers to people as well as to things and has done so for centuries.

Never was an essay more aptly named.

“I don’t care what all of your quoted sources say,” wrote a fiery businesswoman. “Executive-level communications candidates who use ‘that’ do not endear themselves to this veteran headhunter.” One can understand her passion—the raw anger and frustration we all feel when a principle we’ve lived by for years is exposed as an old wives’ tale.

Meanwhile, we’ll leave it to you to decide whether those responsible for the following quotations are English-challenged hacks …

  • “I am he that walks unseen.” —J.R.R. Tolkien
  • “I am he that aches with amorous love.” —Walt Whitman
  • “… children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know.” —Mark Twain
  • “A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.” —King James I, the Bible, Proverbs 18:24

Another reader took issue with Kingsley Amis’s preference for the man that I spoke to rather than the man whom I spoke to—but for a different reason: “I would have written ‘the man to whom I spoke.’ ”

The gentleman who wrote this believes that prepositions should not end sentences. It’s another of the myths about English that just won’t die, right up there with “Do not split an infinitive” and “Do not begin a sentence with And.” Amis set a trap, and this person fell into it. There is no living English scholar who will defend “Do not end a sentence with a preposition,” yet the superstition is still believed by an alarming number of intelligent people.

Here is what the snarky Mr. Amis himself had to say about it: “This is one of those fancied prohibitions dear to ignorant snobs … It is natural and harmless in English to use a preposition to end a sentence with.” Amis goes on to quote H.W. Fowler, the dean of English scholars, who wrote, “The power of saying People worth talking to instead of People with whom it is worth while to talk is not one to be lightly surrendered.”

We are all entitled to our preferences—even our prejudices—but declaring them rules everyone else must live by is crossing a line.

 

Pop Quiz

Pick the correct choices. Answers are below.

1.
A) This is the man who got away with murder.
B) This is the man which got away with murder.
C) This is the man that got away with murder.

2.
A) She is not someone to whom you want to be rude.
B) She is not someone whom you want to be rude to.
C) She is not someone that you want to be rude to.
D) She is not someone you want to be rude to.

3.
A) I just saw Vada, who looks distracted.
B) I just saw Vada, that looks distracted.
C) A and B are both correct.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. A and C are both correct.
2. All choices are correct.
3. A is correct.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, September 16, 2014, at 1:09 pm