Latin may technically be a dead language, but that hasn’t stopped us from adopting many of its phrases into our everyday English vocabulary. English phrases are difficult to spell correctly without throwing an extra language in the mix, so it’s no surprise that these untranslated words and phrases are misused frequently.
While many untranslated Latin phrases are used in legal situations and not common in everyday writing, there are a few Latin phrases that crop up often in our regular speech and written communication. Et al. and etc. are used (and sometimes misused) in academic papers, blog posts, and casual conversation.
Et al. vs. etc.: A quick grammar guide
Understanding the Latin meanings helps us use these borrowed phrases correctly in English writing, so let’s look at the original Latin and some examples of these phrases in English.
The Latin phrase et cetera is commonly abbreviated as etc. in English usage. In Latin, et means “and,” and cetera means “the rest.” The abbreviation etc. is often tacked on to the end of a list to imply that other members of that list exist and are included. If a writer uses etc. they are suggesting that readers can assume the category of the examples and fill in the blanks for themselves.
I’m not picky; I’ll read anything — mystery, romance, sci-fi, etc.
In this instance, the speaker gives several examples of book genres (the implied category) and then uses etc. to imply that they include every other genre in this list as well.
This abbreviation comes in handy when it would be impossible (or very tedious) to list every item in a category.
He can’t eat dairy products (milk, cheese, etc.) because he is lactose intolerant.
Rather than listing every dairy product imaginable, the speaker gives a few examples and includes etc., to cover the rest.
One good way to ensure you’re using etc. correctly is to substitute “and so on” and see if the sentence still makes sense.
I’m not picky; I’ll read anything — mystery, romance, sci-fi, and so on.
If “and so on” would be an acceptable substitute, you’re OK to use etc. And remember, because etc. is an abbreviation for et cetera, it ALWAYS has a period at the end.
Et al. is a similar phrase to etc., but it is more specific. As we know, the Latin et means “and.” Al. is an abbreviation of the Latin words alia, alii, or aliae, all of which mean “others” (the spelling differences depend on the gender: neutral, masculine, or feminine, respectively).
Et al. is most commonly used in academic contexts such as bibliographies or bibliographical references in footnotes — it only refers to people. It is used to stand for names that have been left out at the end of a list. Most often, it is used to indicate that several authors collaborated on a book or article.
That article by Gibson et al. was the most useful source in my research paper.
Various style guides have different rules about listing authors with et al., so it is important to verify that you’re using it correctly.
And don’t forget, though both of these abbreviations end lists, et al. only refers to people, while etc. refers to other things. They are not interchangeable!
Read more grammar, usage tips, etc.:
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- Efficient vs. Effective vs. Similar Word Mix-Ups
- Elicit vs. Illicit vs. Similar Word Mix-Ups
- Imply vs. Infer vs. Similar Word Mix-Ups
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