Q&A: Explaining i.e. and e.g.

Each week, our Australian Writers’ Centre Q&A chats about the quirks and anomalies of the English language. This week, we’re making an example of ourselves with some common acronyms and how to use them correctly…

Q: Hi AWC, I’d like to ask you about i.e. and e.g. Can you tell me what the distinction is?
A: We sure can. Probably best to start with Latin.

Q: That’s what my dance teacher told me.
A: Okay, so both are abbreviations of Latin phrases. I.e. for “id est” – translating as “that is”. And e.g. from “exempli gratia” from “for the sake of example” (for example).

Q: Sounds like a school logo. Any easier ways to remember them?
A: You may have heard “in essence”, “in effect” or “I explain” for i.e. and “example given” or “eg-zample” as a way to remember e.g. They work pretty well to capture each one’s meaning.

Q: Sure, but when would I use each?
A: Well, it’s true that they’re similar. But there are some clear differences. For “i.e.” the clue is in the “that is” definition – you’re basically paraphrasing what has come before; providing another definition. The trick is to see if it would still make sense if you replaced “i.e.” with “in other words”.

Q: So an example?
A: Sure. “She only gets to work on her writing on her children’s preschool days, i.e. Tuesdays and Thursdays.” In this case, you are rephrasing the description – it is a finite list. Those two days are precisely the preschool days. No less, no more.

Q: So how does that differ from e.g.?
A: This is where you’re providing an example (or examples) from a list that includes others. If we use the previous example, you might say “On Tuesdays and Thursdays, she intends to write but ends up browsing websites (e.g. Facebook, Essential Kids, Bored Panda) instead.” Those three sites aren’t the definition of ‘websites’ – they are merely a few examples of them.

Q: Alright, so “i.e.” to paraphrase and “e.g.” for examples.
A: Follow those rules and you can’t put a foot wrong.

Q: That’s what my dance teacher said.
A: Right. Okay…

Q: Now, I’ve often seen a comma after each – is this a thing?
A: Ah, good question. In America, they usually have a comma following the abbreviation, i.e., like what we just did there. However, the rest of the world ditches this comma.

Q: But there’s always a comma before?
A: Yes, either a comma, or you’d put the start of parentheses (i.e. this sort of thing). Note we used i.e. and not e.g. in the parentheses because it was defining completely what we had said. That’s about as fine as the line gets. Other punctuation (e.g. colons or semicolons) can be more of a case by case thing – and actually we wrote this sentence was just to illustrate the use of “e.g.” inside parentheses.

Q: Clever. So do they ever need to be written in italics?
A: No, they’re part of common usage; not necessary.

Q: And it should be a capital when beginning sentences? E.g. like this?
A: Yes, exactly like that. Although often it’s better to write it out as words. For example, like this sentence here.

Q: That’s also what my dance teacher says!
A: Um. That makes no sense. Why would your dance teacher say that?

Q: I ask everyone I meet about grammar and punctuation. It’s just my thing. After all, it takes two to tango.
A: Okay, that’s enough. You can go now.

Q: Hey, she says that too…

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