Using i.e. and e.g.: Ditch the Latin book and follow these tips

One means ‘in other words,’ and the other ‘for example’—but which is which?

Misusing the abbreviations i.e. and e.g. is one of the top five mistakes I used to see when editing technical documents. There’s so much confusion that in some of the drafts I got back from clients they had actually crossed out the right abbreviation and replaced it with the wrong one. I just had to laugh.

I.e. and e.g. are both abbreviations for Latin terms. I.e. stands for id est and means roughly “that is.” E.g. stands for exempli gratia, which means “for example.” “Great. Latin,” you’re probably thinking. “How am I supposed to remember that?”

I’m not going to ask you to remember Latin. I’m going to give you a memory trick! Here’s how I remember the difference: Forget about i.e. standing for “that is” or whatever it really means in Latin. From now on, i.e., which starts with i, means “in other words,” and e.g., which starts with e, means “for example.” I = in other words. E= example.

Some of my listeners have said they remember the difference between i.e. and e.g. by imagining that i.e. means “in essence,” and e.g. sounds like “egg sample,” and those are good memory tricks, too.

So, now that you have a few tricks for remembering what the abbreviations mean, let’s think about how to use them in a sentence.

E.g. means “for example,” so you use it to introduce an example: I like card games, e.g., bridge and crazy eights. Because I used e.g., you know that I have provided a list of examples of card games that I like. It’s not a finite list of all card games I like; it’s just a few examples.

On the other hand, i.e. means “in other words,” so you use it to introduce a further clarification: I like to play cards, i.e., bridge and crazy eights. Because I used i.e., which introduces a clarification, you know that these are the only card games that I enjoy.

Here are two more examples:

Squiggly loves watching old cartoons (e.g., DuckTales and Tugboat Mickey). The words following e.g. are examples, so you know that these are just some of the old cartoons that Squiggly enjoys.

Squiggly loves watching Donald Duck’s nephews (i.e., Huey, Dewey, and Louie). The words following i.e. provide clarification: They tell you the names of Donald Duck’s three nephews.

An important point is that if I’ve failed, and you’re still confused about when to use each abbreviation, you can always just write out the words “for example” or “in other words.” No rule says you have to use the abbreviations.

Here are a few other things about i.e. and e.g. Don’t italicize them in your text; even though they are abbreviations for Latin words, they’ve been used for so long that they’re considered a standard part of the English language. Also, remember that they are abbreviations, so there is always a period after each letter and there is no space in the middle.

Also, I always put a comma after i.e. and e.g. I’ve noticed that my spell checker always freaks out and wants me to remove the comma, but five out of six style guides recommend the comma. Seriously. I got so engrossed in the question of whether a comma is required after i.e. and e.g. that I made a table summarizing the opinions of six different style guides.

Source

Recommendation

Chicago Manual of Style

A comma is usually used after i.e. and e.g.

Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Commas are preferable/optional after the abbreviations.

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English

[Editors] require a comma after the second period [in these abbreviations].

The Guide to Grammar and Writing

The comma [following i.e. and e.g.] makes good sense.

Lynch Guide to Grammar

Both abbreviations should be followed by a comma.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage

Commas do not usually follow i.e. (No comment on e.g.)

Nevertheless, even though I prefer the comma and have sources to back me up, they almost all use hedge words like “usually” and “preferred.” I’ve also been told that the commas are used less frequently in Britain, and the only style guide I found that advised against commas was Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which has its roots in British English.

The bottom line is that in American English, I recommend using a comma after i.e. and e.g. You could probably make an argument for leaving it out in some cases, but do so at your own risk. My personal rule is to use a comma every time.

Finally, I tend to reserve i.e. and e.g. to introduce parenthetical statements, but it’s also fine to use i.e. and e.g. in other ways. You can put a comma before them, or if you use them to introduce a complete sentence that follows after another complete sentence, you can put a semicolon before them.

You can even put an em dash before i.e. and e.g. if you are using them to introduce something dramatic. They’re just abbreviations for words, so you can use them in any way you’d use the words in essence or for example.

Mignon Fogarty is the host of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. Reprinted by arrangement with Quick and Dirty Tips, a division of Macmillan Holdings, LLC.

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