For me, knowing when to use i.e. vs e.g. is a fun exercise! Knowing when to use i.e. versus e.g. properly in a sentence can set you apart from the pack. It’s these little things in professional writing that (to use an old phrase) separates the women from the girls, and the men from the boys!
I.e. vs E.g.: Why Should You Care?
I work with a lot of incredibly talented writers. They are mostly lawyers (like myself), and a great deal of lawyering involves writing. Writing everything from appellate briefs, demand letters, complaints…you get the idea. All of our writing must not only be professional, but it must be worded to get what our clients want and need. Whether that is a certain ruling from a judge, or a settlement from the opposing side – we write to inspire action!
These are the writers whose writing I edit every day. They are darned good at what they do. Yet some of the “little things” about writing can confound even those of us who write all the time in our professional lives.
Good writing is like a puzzle. You must have (know) all the pieces, and know how to put them together properly. The better you get at the puzzle, the better your writing will be – and the more respect you will garner for your professional writing. In this article, distinguishing between i.e. vs. e.g. is one piece of the puzzle. Let’s start by looking at what each abbreviation actually means.
The Meaning and Use of I.e.
First, we will address i.e. This is an abbreviation for the Latin term “id est,” which roughly translates to “that is” or “in other words.”
- I really enjoy doing certain crafts, (i.e., pottery and scrapbooking).
In the first example, the words after i.e. explain exactly which crafts the speaker enjoys. It narrows down the choices. Does she like all crafts? No. She only likes pottery and scrapbooking. These are not examples, they are the only crafts she likes. The abbreviation works to limit the possibilities.
- Sheryl is such a micro-manager, (i.e., she likes to control everything we do).
In the second example, the words after the abbreviation are clarifying what the speaker means by the term “micro-manager.” In other words, she’s a control freak! You could literally change the sentence to add the definition of i.e.:
Sheryl is such a micro-manager, in other words, she likes to control everything we do.
If you can insert the words “in other words” or “that is” for the i.e., then you know that your sentence is correct.
Here’s the way I like to think about the basic difference between i.e. and e.g. With i.e. you are narrowing down the possibilities of what was previously stated. You are clarifying exactly what you mean. As we will see in a moment — e.g. is the opposite!
The Meaning and Use of E.G.
E.g. is an abbreviation for the Latin term “exempli gratia.” This means “for example.” Pretty straightforward, right?
- Rick loves woodworking and making awesome furniture, (e.g., rocking chairs, cabinets, dressers, etc.).
In the first example, the words following the abbreviation do not form a complete list. Rocking chairs, cabinets, and dressers are only some of the furniture that Rick likes to make. There are others, but these are just a few examples.
- The Piggly Wiggly sells Billy Bob all the foods he loves, (e.g., eggs, steak, cheese, and bagels).
In the second example, we can assume that Billy Bob eats more than only eggs, steak, cheese, and bagels. These are just a sampling of the kinds of food that Billy loves that he gets at the Piggly Wiggly.
So if you use e.g. in your sentence and you want to be sure it’s correct, try the same sentence substituting the words “for example” in place of e.g.:
- The Piggly Wiggly sells Billy Bob all the foods he loves, for example, eggs, steak, cheese, and bagels.
If you want to be extra certain that your reader understands that this is only a partial list, you can always add “etc.” at the end of the list – but this is really not grammatically necessary. The reader should know what e.g. stands for (and common sense tells us that Billy Bob very likely eats more than four foods).
So e.g. is not a limiting, or clarifying abbreviation (as seen above with i.e.). Instead, it does the opposite. It gives the reader a few examples, while leaving the list open-ended. It is a jumping-off point, if you will.
If you want to think of it as a rule, it would go something like this:
- I.e. is an abbreviation that limits and clarifies.
- E.g. is an abbreviation that is open-ended.
Other Ways to Remember I.e. vs E.g.
OK, I hope that the explanations above are helpful. But in everyday writing, you are likely not going to remember all of the above. What are some quick ways to help you use these abbreviations correctly without having to look it up again?!
This is my favorite memory device. While I’m writing or editing and I come across a sentence where the writer used (or I want to use) one of these abbreviations, here is what I think:
I.e. means “in essence.” Then it’s easy for me to recall that “in essence” means “in other words” or “that is.” Then I know that “that is” etc., are limiting words that clarify an idea.
E.g. makes me think of egg! So I use e.g. to mean “egg-sample.” (This is not what everyone uses, but to me it is the most obvious!) And examples are not finite. They are just a few items in a larger list.
So that is my quick and simple way to recall when to use either of these abbreviations. I hope this explanation has helped!
Please feel free to comment below, or add any memory devices you like to use to distinguish between these two abbreviations.