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Writing and Grammar Tips (beta)


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Category : Writing Tips

I.e. versus E.g.

Some of the most consistent problems that I see while editing academic papers are the incorrect usage and inconsistent punctuation of i.e. and e.g. These two elucidating pairs of letters seem to cause quite a few problems for even the most erudite of academic writers, so the subject of how to use the abbreviations i.e. and e.g. properly and consistently certainly deserves its own post. In many cases, it’s clear to me as an editor that the author just doesn’t know which one to use, even though the rest of their project may be brilliant. In other cases, it’s clear that the author knows which one to use, but the inconsistent punctuation used throughout the project reveals that effective comma usage remains a mystery. This post should clear up both of those issues.

To understand the rules on both proper usage and the proper punctuation when using i.e. or e.g., it’s helpful to understand their origins. It’s true that too many English grammar and punctuation rules aren’t rules at all. English is full of ambiguity and exceptions. So isn’t it a good thing i.e. and e.g. originate in Latin? Both letters are abbreviations for Latin phrases and are meant to clarify something or provide additional information. The letters i.e. come from the Latin phrase id est, which means that is. The letters e.g. come from the Latin phrase exempli gratia, which means for the sake of example.

Understanding their origins, then, clarifies the scenarios in which we should use each phrase. The letters i.e. are only used when restating or more succinctly clarifying something that was already stated, that is, it is not used to precede a list of examples. A list of examples is primarily the function of e.g., as demonstrated by its Latin origin, exempli gratia.

To illustrate: I love the best team in baseball, i.e., the Milwaukee Brewers. In the preceding sentence, I use i.e., because I’m clarifying that the best team in baseball is the Milwaukee Brewers and none other. There is no other best team in baseball.

Argue with me on that. Go ahead. I dare you.

In contrast, I love all the best sports teams, e.g., the Milwaukee Brewers, the Green Bay Packers, and the Milwaukee Bucks. Here, I’m providing a list of examples, and it is not necessarily an all-inclusive list. I could love other great sports teams, e.g., any sports team fielded by the University of Wisconsin. See what I did there?

Likewise, remembering the origins of the abbreviations i.e. and e.g. aids in remembering that a comma should be placed after the letters. Simply replacing the Latin abbreviations with their English translations demonstrates the point. Using the above examples, we could just as easily write the following: I love the best team in baseball, that is, the Milwaukee Brewers; and I love all the best sports teams, for example, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Green Bay Packers, and the Milwaukee Bucks. When using each phrase in English, a comma would be appropriate; therefore, a comma is appropriate when using the Latin abbreviations. Although a comma is almost always called for in American English, British English may sometimes omit the comma. If you don’t want to take my word for it, check out the Grammar Girl post on the subject. She has worked up a chart demonstrating which style guides recommend a comma and which ones don’t.

Here’s a hint to save you some time: Nearly all style guides recommend using a comma after i.e. and e.g. when introducing clarification or examples, respectively.

If all that is too complicated to remember, try using a memory trick. The trick that I have found to be the most popular and effective involves coming up with your own English translation for the letters. When using i.e., pretend that it means in essence. This will help remind you that you’re clarifying or restating what you’ve already said. For e.g., pretend that it means example given. This will help remind you that you’re providing a  non-exhaustive list of examples.

Translating Vernacular into Academic

Of the millions of people in the world who study English as a second language, quite a few of them would be able to order food at a restaurant or have a conversation about the weather. But what if they were asked to write a literary analysis, a scientific report, or a researched policy document? The number of English students capable of this second sort of task would drop dramatically.

There are many factors which explain the difference between these two kinds of communication, but a lot of it comes down to register. A register is a type of language used in a particular context. Academic writing calls for a more formal register than conversational speaking, which results in certain differences in tone, syntax, and word choice.

Of course, English is not the only language possessing multiple registers. Most languages operate under different expectations and norms depending on the social situation. For the purposes of this blog, I’d like to cover some of the most common words in English vernacular and how they are usually translated into academic writing.

1. about vs. approximately

I’d venture to say that there is no meaningful semantic difference between the words “about” and “approximately.” Connotatively, though, “about” somehow seems less precise or even less confident than “approximately.”

Less formal: Out of the 900 participants, about 32% reported feelings of discomfort.

Slightly more formal: Out of the 900 participants, roughly 32% reported feelings of discomfort.

More formal yet: Out of the 900 participants, approximately 32% reported feelings of discomfort.

2. done vs. conducted, complete, completed

Leave it to English academic style to reject a simple, single-syllable word in favor of a longer, more technical one. Even if you are carrying out top-notch experimental work, fellow scholars may not take you very seriously if you say “After the test was done.”

Less formal: After the first analysis was done, the second experiment began.

More formal: After the first analysis was conducted, the second experiment began.

3. get vs. receive

“Get” belongs almost exclusively to the vernacular register. People use it all the time when they’re talking among themselves, but in writing it usually becomes “receive” or another appropriate synonym.

Less formal: After the participants got the survey in the mail, they had 14 days to complete the questions.

More formal: After the participants received the survey in the mail, they had 14 days to complete the questions.

4. get vs. become

It’s quite possible that “get” is unpopular among academic writers because it has so many different uses. When the same word can mean “receive” in one sentence and “become” in the next, it’s no wonder that scholars try to steer clear.

Less formal: From an economic perspective, the country was getting less and less independent.

More formal: From an economic perspective, the country was becoming less and less independent.

5. big vs. large, significant, substantial

As with many English words, the connotative difference between “big” and “large” has something to do with their etymology. Generally, words with Latin or Old French origins are perceived as more elevated than those with Old English or Germanic origins. (That’s why, for example, the animal is called “chicken” [Old English roots] while the meat is called “poultry” [Old French roots].)

Less formal: Figure 5 shows a big increase in exported goods in 2005.

Slightly more formal: Figure 5 shows a large increase in exported goods in 2005.

More formal yet: Figure 5 shows a considerable increase in exported goods in 2005. (Other acceptable substitutions at this register include “significant” and “substantial.”)

6. huge vs. enormous, immense, massive

This one has nothing to do with etymology (as far as I am aware); it’s just that there are a lot of words related to size that do not fit within the formal academic register.

Less formal: The late 1980s saw a huge proliferation of personal computers. (“Gigantic” also resides at this lower register.)

More formal: The late 1980s saw an enormous proliferation of personal computers. (“Massive” and “immense” are similar in meaning and register to “enormous.”)

7.  pretty vs. fairly, somewhat, generally

Some speakers use the word “pretty” to denote “fairly” or “somewhat.” In the academic register, stick to these alternatives rather than use “pretty.”

Less formal: The boiling temperature remained pretty consistent.

More formal: The boiling temperature remained fairly consistent.

8. really, very vs. extremely, greatly, dramatically

Cranky English teachers (in whose ranks I consider myself) are almost singlehandedly responsible for making anathema of the words “really” and “very.” The basic argument is that “really” and “very” do not actually add any meaning to a sentence. In fact, the best recommendation when revising those words is probably to remove them altogether. If, however, you feel compelled to keep some kind of adverb in your sentence, consider these alternatives:

Less formal: The chemical compounds in this type of plastic were found to have very negative health effects.

More formal: The chemical compounds in this type of plastic were found to have extremely negative health effects.

(Again, many writers would say that removing the adverb altogether is the best option here: “The chemical compounds in this type of plastic were found to have negative health effects.”)

Pronoun Problems: Confusing Singular with Plural

Pronouns seem painless enough at first: you simply replace a noun with a corresponding pronoun, like a shortcut or abbreviation. Easy stuff, right? In a way, yes, but in another way, not at all. While the basic mechanics of pronouns are indeed straightforward, using them properly in writing is made difficult by – as counterintuitive as it may sound – English speakers themselves. There are many instances where conversational English rebels against the norms of standard academic English. The use of singular and plural pronouns is one of those cases.

In conversation, it would not be strange to hear any of the following sentences:

Each student knew where they should sit.

A leader is someone who knows when they need to take action.

Anyone who says they never lie is not telling the truth.

Although the above sentences make sense in terms of their content, each one contains the same kind of error when it comes to pronouns.  In all three cases, the sentence begins with a singular noun: “each student,” “a leader,” and “anyone.” These singular nouns are replaced by the plural pronoun “they.” This is an error because, according to the norms of standard academic English, pronouns must agree in number. In other words, it does not make sense for someone to refer to “a leader” (which suggests one person) as “they” (which suggests more than one person).

So why do people make this mistake in the first place? The answer is that singular personal pronouns denote that person’s gender, and often there is no way of knowing the person’s gender. In the sentence about leaders, for example, “a leader” could refer to a female leader or to a male leader. This makes it difficult to decide whether to use “she” or “he,” so many speakers and writers use the gender-neutral pronoun “they,” even though it is technically not appropriate.

In the past, writers tended to use masculine pronouns as a default reference. For instance, they would simply write, “A leader is someone who knows when he needs to take action.” This grammatical choice implies an argument about men and women, suggesting that all leaders are male. More recently, some writers have taken the opposite approach, using feminine pronouns as the default option. Either way, choosing just one or the other excludes a large group of people, which can lead to inaccurate, limited, and sometimes offensive claims.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways to work around this pronoun problem without privileging either men or women. The first is to pluralize the noun. Changing the noun into a plural makes it acceptable to use the plural pronoun later in the sentence. The sample sentences above would be revised thus:

All of the students knew where they should sit.

Leaders are people who know when they need to take action.

People who say they never lie are not telling the truth.

A second way to make your pronouns agree is to use both of the gender-specific pronouns. This is an acceptable solution, but you should be careful not to overuse it. A paragraph or an entire essay littered with the phrases “he or she” and “him or her” can become difficult to read. (Note that you may also reverse the order and say “she or he” and “her or him.” Whichever order you choose, try to stick to that order consistently throughout your document.) Using this method, the original sample sentences would look like this:

Each student knew where he or she should sit.

A leader is someone who knows when he or she needs to take action.

Anyone who says that he or she never lies is not telling the truth.

Finally, a third way to avoid pronoun agreement problems is to avoid using the pronoun altogether. Sometimes the best revision is reduction. Observe the following rewrites:

Each student knew where to sit.

A leader is someone who knows when to take action.

Anyone who claims to never lie is not telling the truth.

In the future, it may one day become acceptable in academic English to replace singular nouns with plural pronouns. For the moment, though, your best bet is to keep the singular with the singular and the plural with the plural.