Word-Wise Wednesday

Grammar sticks a foot out and trips all of us sometimes. But after you shake your fist at it in well-founded outrage and pick yourself up, check out Word-Wise Wednesdays, a series of grammar tips for dealing with some of the most commonly confused grammar rules. Once a month we’ll offer a new tip to help demystify the rules that give us the most trouble.  As ever, we welcome questions and discussion.

Etc. vs. Et al.

At a Glance

Use etc. with lists of things and et al. with lists of people.

The Basics

Etc., from the Latin et cetera, is an abbreviation for “and other things”—plural, not singular—so use it with lists of two or more items, never just one. Et al., from the Latin et alia, stands for “and others,” referring to humans, so use it exclusively with people. Unlike etc., you can use et al. after listing only one person (e.g., Smith et al.).

In-Depth Discussion

It’s easy to mix up etc. and et al. They look similar and are often mistaken as synonyms. But there is a difference! It may not seem like a huge one, but think about it: it’s essentially the difference between being an object and being a human being. That’s a pretty crucial distinction. And that’s why it’s so important to know how to use these terms—so no one feels like less of a person. Have a look at the examples below.

Professionals from all over the medical field attended the conference—doctors, nurses, technicians, et al. (Professionals=people)

The presentations were on the usual topics of patient advocacy, technology, research funding, etc., but they were still very engaging. (Presentation topics=things)

In addition to the usage of etc. and et al., there are three other things to notice in the examples above:

  1. And does not precede et al. or in either sentence. It’s tempting to slide an and in there because we’re so used to putting one before the last item in a list, but, as with many of life’s great temptations, we must be strong and resolute and just say no. The reason is that et literally translates from the Latin to and, so adding in another and would be like saying “and and others” or “and and other things.”
  2. Both and et al. have a single period after their final letters regardless of where they are in a sentence. In the first example, the period in et al. is working extra hard, demarcating both an abbreviated word and the end of a sentence. In the second example, the period in etc. only indicates an abbreviated word, but it stays regardless of the fact that etc. is in the middle of the sentence.
  3. Etc. and et al. are preceded and followed by a comma when they are the final item in a list, unless they end a sentence. Notice that commas surround etc. in the second example, but not et al. in the first example. Et al. ends a sentence, so it is only followed by a period. If et al. was in the middle, then it would take two commas. (Doctors, nurses, technicians, et al., attended the conference.)

That said, if you poke around the grammar sources, you’ll find that some guides no longer enforce the comma after etc. or et al., so leaving it out isn’t exactly grammar folly. However, many sources, including The Chicago Manual of Style, still support the traditional usage.

*Note: The only exception to this rule is when et al. is used with only one name, in which case no commas are needed.

Smith et al. made the discovery.

Some Usage Notes about Etc.

Etc. is beloved and much used in the grammar world because it’s so handy—no one has to write or read long, boring lists. Unfortunately, etc. is frequently misunderstood (the tragic price of popularity) as a catch-all phrase for any situation involving a list, when, in reality, it has limitations and best practices.

It is a best practice to use etc. with intuitive lists, when there isn’t much question about what’s being left out. Etc. essentially says, “You get where I’m going with this,” which is a way of acknowledging that an exhaustive list is unnecessary because readers already have enough context to understand what’s being said. Check out the difference between the following examples.

In our digital age, social media sites—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.—are crucial marketing and advertising tools.

Research help, consultations, technical support, etc., are available to all of our clients.

The first example assumes readers don’t require a comprehensive list because they already have an idea about the kind of websites “social media sites” refers to. Many people would probably skim or skip such a list, so we use etc. to keep it short and sweet. Conversely, the second example assumes too much. Readers have no way of guessing what other services are available to them, unless a complete list of services was provided beforehand. This list is not intuitive, so etc. just leaves readers with questions.

Finally, it is redundant to use etc. at the end of lists that already begin with “for example,” “such as,” or e.g. (e.g. stands for exempli gratia, which translates to “for example.”) These phrases introduce examples, and examples, by definition, are not exhaustive, so there’s no need to use etc. to indicate that a list is incomplete—if any of these words are present, then readers will already know.

Incorrect: Hotels provide many of the common travel items people forget (e.g., toothbrushes, hair dryers, shampoo, etc.).

Correct: Hotels provide many of the common travel items people forget (e.g., toothbrushes, hair dryers, shampoo).

Incorrect: The hotel provides items such as toothbrushes, hair dryers, shampoo, etc., because people often forget them when they travel.

Correct: The hotel provides items such as toothbrushes, hair dryers, and shampoo because people often forget them when they travel.

Missing etc. in those correct examples? Don’t despair! (Etc. probably missed you, too.) Just remember that it doesn’t like to share the limelight, and you can still use it, as long as you don’t make it share the stage with “such as” or “for example”:

Many hotels provide toothbrushes, hair dryers, shampoo, etc., because people often forget those items when they travel.

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