The Writer’s Toolbox – For Example

?Support your statements with examples,? my fourth grade teacher told us. And while it might have sounded scary to an elementary school student, adults will recognize how commonly we do this in everyday speech. Whether we’re complaining about the obnoxious drivers on today’s commute or clarifying exactly what kind of flour we want at the grocery store, we use illustrative examples all the time.

When it comes to writing them down, though, things can get a little confusing. This week’s Toolbox will explore the difference between i.e. and e.g. and offer a quick way to figure out which abbreviation to use.

One of the most common writing errors is based on the assumption that i.e. and e.g. are interchangeable. In fact, each one has a distinct meaning–and using the wrong abbreviation can actually alter the statement You’re trying to make.

The abbreviation e.g. means ?for example?; it comes from the Latin exempli gratia, which basically means ?for the sake of example.? It is used to introduce a few examples; in other words, a sample of possibilities, a limited list, a few examples out of several others that could have been chosen. You could mentally substitute ?like? or ?such as? and have the same meaning.

Example A: I’m going to bring some food to the party, e.g. cookies and cupcakes.

This sentence means that the speaker will bring some food, like cookies and cupcakes–maybe she hasn’t decided what She’s bringing yet, so She’s just giving examples, or maybe She’s bringing several items, including but not limited to cookies and cupcakes. Note that this sentence does not mean that the (only) items She’s bringing are cookies and cupcakes.

The abbreviation i.e. means ?that is?; it comes from the Latin id est, which means ?that is to say? or ?in other words.? It is used to describe by explaining; it does not specifically list examples, but rather clarifies the word being described.

Example B: I’m going to bring some food to the party, i.e. cookies and cupcakes.

This sentence means that the only food items the speaker is bringing are cookies and cupcakes. The phrase beginning with i.e. just further narrows the options (food) that the speaker is talking about.

When in doubt, substitute ?such as? and ?in other words? in your sentence and see which one makes the most sense for the meaning You’re trying to convey. Then swap it out for the appropriate abbreviation.

The abbreviations i.e. and e.g. are common in all kinds of writing, from essays to correspondence. Learning how to use them properly will make your writing clearer and your examples stronger.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor and a lover of great writing. Chat with her on Twitter about all things literary @turntopage2.