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Posts Tagged ‘grammar’

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.

“Who” versus “Whom”

Another word pair that often creates confusion for writers is “who” and “whom.” To properly learn which one to use, we first must clearly understand the difference between the subject and the object of a sentence. Basically, the subject is the one taking the action, and the object is the one that is the recipient of that action. For example, if Johnny hits Billy, Johnny is doing the hitting and is thus the subject, whereas Billy is being hit and is thus the object.

Now, let’s move on to “who” and “whom.” Both of these words are interrogative pronouns, i.e., pronouns used to ask questions. “Who” is a subjective interrogative pronoun. In other words, “who” is used as the subject of a sentence when asking a question. For example, “Who won the race?” “Whom” is an objective interrogative pronoun. In other words, “whom” is used as the object of a sentence or a preposition when asking a question. For example, “Whom did you beat in your race?” In this instance, you see that we are asking about the object of the sentence, i.e., the person who was beat.

To simplify things a bit, think of our first example. Who hit whom? Johnny hit Billy. Hopefully, you will now be able to confidently use “who” and “whom” in your writing.

The Much-Needed Hyphen and Some Largely Unknown Exceptions

English is a language where adjectives and other descriptive words usually come before the noun instead of after. So if there is more than one descriptive word in a phrase, sometimes it’s hard to understand which words go together. For example, take the phrase “small appliance store.” Does that mean an appliance store that is small? Or a store that sells small appliances? Add a hyphen, and the confusion is gone: small-appliance store. That little dash helps us understand which words are the modifiers and which words are being modified.

Here are some examples of hyphenated phrases:

  • a high-quality plastic
  • my much-improved health
  • his four-year-old son
  • the bug-filled garden
  • an open-minded person

In each of these, the hyphen tells us that the two words together modify the noun that follows.

But don’t go hyphenating every group of words that modifies a noun, because there are at least three important exceptions. The first exception is adverbs ending in -ly. Because the following phrases use adverbs that end in –ly, they don’t need hyphens:

  • the sadly neglected yard
  • a critically acclaimed book
  • your highly appreciated contribution
  • my completely uneventful morning
  • our embarrassingly late proposal

Why don’t these phrases need hyphens? Because the purpose of hyphens is to prevent misunderstandings about what’s modifying what. Since an adverb ending in -ly almost always modifies the word that follows, misunderstanding these phrases is very unlikely, and the hyphen isn’t needed.

A second exception: phrases containing a proper noun. We don’t put a hyphen in “United Kingdom imports” because it’s already clear from the capitalization that “United Kingdom” is a unified group of words. Here are some other examples of proper noun phrases modifying nouns.

  • three Elton John albums
  • any US Open tickets
  • various Native American languages

Finally, sometimes a hyphen is unnecessary simply because the phrase is so common that it’s already become one accepted word! A dictionary can help you find out if this is the case. For example:

  • these halfhearted efforts
  • my motormouthed friend
  • an underdeveloped idea

Correct use of hyphens will improve your writing by making it easier for readers to understand. Just keep in mind the few exceptions to the rule, and you’ll do great. And of course, we’re always here to help you.