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Grammar for Professionals, e.g. vs. i.e. All Becomes Clear

As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, one of my backburner hobby projects is writing a book called “Wroting Inglish: The Essential Guide to Writing English for Anyone Who Doesn’t Want to be Thought a Dingbat.”

When I commenced work on this project, the audience I had in mind was primarily my peeps (engineers). More recently, however, since I’ve found myself correcting communications from members of multiple occupations, including lawyers, I’ve decided to target professionals in general.

Now, you might argue that there are already countless books documenting English grammar and punctuation in mind-numbing detail, and I can do naught but agree. So, does the world really need one more? Well, on the basis that my intended audience has not been enticed by any of the existing offerings, I would have to say, “Yes, the world does need one more, and this is going to be it!”

The thing is that I have no intention of covering every aspect of the English language. All I want to do is address a few of the mistakes people make that really grate on the nerves of anyone who has a clue, like the difference between “it’s” and “its” (with and without an apostrophe), for example.

As I always say, if someone sends me an email saying “Your an idiot,” then they probably aren’t conveying the message they were intending (this should, of course, be “You’re an idiot” or “You are an idiot”).

It really doesn’t take long to master this sort of thing and you can obtain a tremendous return for very little effort. By comparison, there are some grammatical rules that are so obscure that even grammarians come to blows over them. Mastering these rules would bring the strongest amongst us to our knees, and all to no avail because our readers wouldn’t recognize that there was an issue in the first place.

As with many things, the law of diminishing returns comes into play, which I hope to have captured in the following illustration:

Illustration from Wroting Inglish (Source: Max Maxfield)

The reason the topic of “e.g. vs. i.e.” returned to the forefront of (what I laughingly call) my mind is that I recently penned a whitepaper for a multibillion-dollar corporation. When this paper was returned from their legal department, someone had removed all the commas from my “e.g.,” and “i.e.,” instantiations leaving “e.g.” and “i.e.”, thereby causing me to exclaim “Noooooo!”

Just to rub salt into the wound, one of the engineers with whom I was working on accepting or rejecting these suggested corrections informed me that he’s always understood “e.g.,” and “i.e.,” to be two different ways of saying the same thing, which caused me to scream “Arrgghh!” (Fortunately, I was using my “inside-my-head voice.”)

Thus it was that I decided to share Chapter 6: e.g. or i.e.? in this column (note that we don’t need the aforementioned commas in this particular instance). The remainder of this column is taken directly from this chapter. After you’ve perused and pondered the writings below, I’d be very interested to hear what you think.


Oh, Those Rascally Little Latin Abbreviations

On many occasions, when I receive communications in the form of emails or other writings, I often find the author has used the abbreviations e.g. and i.e. incorrectly. Many people think these two little rascals are interchangeable because they are both used to augment something that was previously mentioned. In reality, however, they are used to convey very different types of information.

The abbreviation e.g. comes from the Latin exempli gratia, meaning “for [the sake of an] example.” Meanwhile, the abbreviation i.e. comes from the Latin id est, meaning “that is” or “that is to say” or “in other words” or “in essence.”

As an aside, although Latin is Latin, irrespective of one’s own mother tongue, each language has adopted whatever Latin it deems to be necessary. For example, although many languages use e.g. or some equivalent (the Spanish use v.g. from the Latin Verbi Gratia and p.ej. from the Spanish Por ejemplo), some don’t employ an equivalent of i.e. This may explain why many non-native English speakers (and writers) use them interchangeably because they think they mean the same thing. But we digress…

As we previously noted, both of these abbreviations are used to augment something that was previously mentioned. We use e.g. to provide an incomplete list—sometimes comprising only a single item—of clarifying examples; we use i.e. to provide either a complete list of clarifying examples or a clarifying statement. Consider the following, for example:

      I like exotic fruits (e.g., mangosteens).
      Correct; Incomplete list; one item.

      I like exotic fruits (e.g., kumquats, mangosteens, and rambutans).
      Correct; Incomplete list; multiple items

      I paint using only the primary pigment colors (i.e., cyan, magenta, and yellow).
      Correct; Complete list.

      The fact they came up with something like hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia (i.e., the fear
      of long words) shows that psychiatrists do have a sense of humor.
      Correct; Clarifying statement.

One thing that we should probably note here relates to the abbreviation etc., which comes from the Latin expression et cetera, meaning “and other things” or “and so on.” The point is that you should never use etc. in conjunction with the incomplete list associated with an e.g. because this would be redundant (we already know it’s an incomplete list). For example:

      I like nuts (e.g., cashews, peanuts, and walnuts).

      I like nuts (e.g., cashews, peanuts, walnuts, etc.).

Observe the use of the commas following e.g. and i.e. in all of the preceding examples. The reason for including these becomes apparent if you were to replace the abbreviation with the thing it stands for as illustrated by the following example:

      I like exotic fruits (e.g., mangosteens).
      I like exotic fruits (for example, mangosteens).

When you read the second version aloud, you can see why a comma is appropriate. Having said this, using this trailing comma with e.g. and i.e. is more common in the USA and less common in the UK. Furthermore, some people omit the periods and just use eg or ie, with or without the trailing comma. Personally, I prefer to use both the periods and the trailing commas. The main point is that whichever convention you opt for, make sure you stick with it and use it consistently. The worst thing you can do is to keep on changing the way you do things throughout a document.

The examples above all show e.g. and i.e. being used in parenthesis, but they can also be used with a preceding comma or semicolon as illustrated in the following examples:

      I dislike green vegetables (e.g., cabbages).

      I dislike green vegetables, e.g., cabbages.
      Preceding comma

      I dislike green vegetables; e.g., cabbages make me burp.
      Preceding semicolon

The rule here is that if you use a preceding comma, then the text that follows the e.g. or i.e. should not be able to act as a standalone sentence. If this text can act as a standalone sentence, and if you use the preceding comma, then you end up with a run-on sentence, which is a “no-no” grammatically speaking.

In the third example above, “cabbages make me burp” could be used as a standalone sentence. Thus, we use a preceding semicolon in this case.

It’s also possible to commence a new sentence with E.g. or I.e. as illustrated by the following example:

      Max enjoys diverse genres. E.g., crime, science fiction, and romance.

If you do start a new sentence with E.g. or I.e., then—as for any sentence—the first letter should be capitalized. The reason this looks a little odd is that e.g. and i.e. are usually deployed in the middle of sentences, surrounded by commas or parentheses, in which case they are presented with lowercase letters.

Useful Tip: Deciding Which One to Use

There are a variety of ways to remember the difference between these two abbreviations. One I quite like is to say that e.g. sounds like “egg sample.” Also, you can think of i.e. as meaning “in essence.” Having said this, I personally always think of e.g. and i.e. as meaning “for example” and “that is,” respectively.

If you’re not sure whether you’re using the correct abbreviation for the task at hand, try exchanging it with the full words it’s replacing. If it doesn’t sound right, then try swapping it out with the other abbreviation. For example, let’s assume that we start with i.e., but we aren’t sure if this is correct. In this case, we could perform the following sequence of operations:

      I’ve been ridiculed by many women (i.e., my sisters).
      Not sure if i.e. is correct? Try exchanging it with “that is.”
      I’ve been ridiculed by many women (that is, my sisters).
      This doesn’t sound right. Swap it out with “for example.”
      I’ve been ridiculed by many women (for example, my sisters).
      This sounds right. Exchange it with e.g.
      I’ve been ridiculed by many women (e.g., my sisters).

Similarly, if we start with e.g., but we aren’t sure if this is correct, then we could perform the following sequence of operations:

      Only one woman thinks I’m wonderful (e.g., my wife).
      Not sure if e.g. is correct? Try exchanging it with “for example.”
      Only one woman thinks I’m wonderful (for example, my wife).
      This doesn’t sound right. Swap it out with “that is.”
      Only one woman thinks I’m wonderful (that is, my wife).
      This sounds right. Exchange it with i.e.
      Only one woman thinks I’m wonderful (i.e., my wife).

Unfortunately, there are some cases where both e.g. and i.e. are grammatically correct but end up meaning very different things. Thus, the bottom line is that you really need to make sure you understand the difference between these two abbreviations if you intend to use them in your writings; otherwise, just use “for example” or “including” instead of e.g., and use “that is” or “that is to say” or “in other words” instead of i.e.


Related Columns

Its vs. It’s: Since “its” and “it’s” each have only three letters, and the same three letters at that, it wouldn’t appear to be beyond the bounds of possibility that we can master the correct usage of these little scamps.

Good-For-Nothing Grammarians: There are countless books that explain English grammar and punctuation in excruciating detail, so does the world really need one more? Yes! 

Bodaciously Big Brass Balls (or The Royal Order of Adjectives): Why is it that “big red beach ball” sounds right, while any other combination of these adjectives (like “red beach big ball”) sounds wrong?

‘H’ is for “Horribly Confusing”: Many older English people were taught that one should use the indefinite article “an” with any noun that starts with the letter ‘h’.

6 thoughts on “Grammar for Professionals, e.g. vs. i.e. All Becomes Clear”

  1. A very good book on grammar is: “A GRAMMAR OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, IN A SERIES OF LETTERS”, by William Cobbett. Published by Cambridge University Press.

    1. This does look very interesting — the full title is “A Grammar of the English Language, in a Series of Letters
      Intended for the Use of Schools and of Young Persons in General; But, More Especially for the Use of Soldiers, Sailors, Apprentices, and Plough-Boys” — I would love to read it “just because” — but it was first published in 1818 and a lot of the rules have changed since that time.

  2. I suppose I did leave out the subtitle – too much typing. Cobbett defines and explains all the terms (with the etymology) in an easy manner using his letter format. It is still worth reading, even if ‘rules’ have changed, as you say. Some of the precision of speech has been lost in the modern. I ordered myself a copy of “Gwynne’s Grammar” and also “Gwynne’s Latin” which I spotted on Amazon. I have recently read Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” for the first time and could not put it down. The language just flows.

    1. I must admit that it’s hard to turn down a grammar book targeted at “Soldiers, Sailors, Apprentices, and Plough-Boys” LOL OK, you’ve talked me into it 🙂

  3. Cannot believe no one else wade in on this subject.

    Reminds me of the old joke: Before I went to university (college for our American readers) I wanted to be an engineer, now I are one.

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