Which Word Wednesday: e.g. vs. i.e.

By February 9, 2011 language No Comments

Each Wednesday we gather around for nail-biting, heart-racing word battles. We look at definitions and context and examples. We toss around our opinions. We vote . . . well, some of us do.

The word battles here at WWW can be intense. It’s sort of like Celebrity Deathmatch—without the gore.

This week’s WWW is a calmer, gentler presentation. No debates, no arguing, no voting. Today we’ll just clarify the usage of two abbreviations that often get mixed up. (I feel all warm and fuzzy inside, don’t you?)

Here’s how the Oxford American Dictionary defines them:

e.g. :: abbreviation
for example; from Latin exempli gratia “for the sake of an example.”

i.e. :: abbreviation
that is to say (used to add explanatory information or to state something in different words); from Latin id est “that is.”

Ron Evans gives these examples1 in his book The Artful Nuance:

Linda has many interests, e.g., swimming, biking, writing, and painting.

Ray likes root vegetables, i.e., vegetables that grow underground.

How can we remember the difference between the two for proper usage? Well, Mark Davidson gives these memory hooks in Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage: “Associate e.g. with “eg-zample” and use i.e. “to introduce an identification or paraphrase of, or an explanation for, what has just been said.”2

Oh—and don’t forget to use a comma after each of these. It may look strange to have a comma following a period, but it’s needed and necessary. Think of the four characters as a unit: e-period-g-period and i-period-e-period. This makes more sense if you consider that a comma is necessary when using the English equivalents of for example or that is before an example or before a list..

What’s my WWW verdict? Latin abbreviations can be tricky. But at least they aren’t prone to gory death-match battles. (They are much too civilized for that.)

What’s your verdict? Are reluctant and reticent synonyms? Does my presence cause reticence? Share your comments and be sure to cast your vote in the poll.

Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Ron Evans, The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2009), 83.
2. Mark Davidson, Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 218.

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