Wednesday, February 08, 2012

e.g. and i.e.


In my capacity as a Michigan Commissioner (Commission on Services to the Aging), I’ve been working with a committee reviewing the by-laws for the State Advisory Council on Aging, our research arm. When we got to the section on the technical requirements for membership, I discovered that the old version had failed to distinguish between the abbreviation e.g. (exempli gratia or for example) and the abbreviation i.e. (id est or that is).

Let me illustrate with two examples not drawn from the by-laws, which are of interest only to a very small audience.

  • (1) Massive November storms on the Great Lakes, e.g., Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, have resulted in hundreds of shipwrecks over the years.
  • (2) Massive November storms on the Great Lakes, i.e., Lakes Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior, have resulted in hundreds of shipwrecks over the years.

The abbreviation e.g. signifies that a limited number of examples are about to be inserted, a mere sample of a larger universe. Items are deliberately left out because of time, space, or interest constraints. Since example 1 gives only two of the five Great Lakes, e.g. is the correct abbreviation.

The abbreviation i.e. signifies that a point just mentioned is about to be clarified, specified, spelled out. The understanding is that nothing will be left out; the list will be complete. Example 2 names all five Great Lakes, so using i.e. is correct.

This also explains why the first example below is wrong.

  • (1) I love the Three Stooges, e.g., Larry, Curly, and Moe.
  • (2) I love the Three Stooges, i.e., Larry, Curly, and Moe.

The second example (using i.e.) is correct because all three Stooges are specified. No one is left out. Using e.g. would imply that more Stooges, yet unnamed, are waiting in the wings. Heaven forfend.


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