Confusing “i.e.” and “e.g.” is rumored to be one of the most common mistakes writers make. It certainly is tricky for me!
Both abbreviations are derived from Latin words, which always complicates matters. So I’m going to keep things as simple as possible:
- i.e. stands for “id est,” which essentially means “in other words.”
- e.g. is the abbreviation for “exempli gratia” or “for example” in English.
Use i.e. to clarify something you’re saying or to offer more precise information. Example: Apple picking is an activity the whole family can enjoy, i.e., you can walk as much or as little as you choose.
E.g. will let readers know you’re introducing a list of one or more examples or possibilities. Example: Scarlett likes to eat sweet-tasting apples, e.g., Red Delicious, Honeycrisp, Fuji.
To decide which abbreviation to use, try this trick: forget about the Latin and remember that the “e” in e.g. is the first letter in “example.” You’ll know you need to provide examples when you use it, and to reserve i.e. for situations when you’re clarifying something.
A few dos and don’ts:
- No need to italicize e.g. and i.e. (even though they’re Latin.)
- Most style guides recommend a period after both letters in both abbreviations, but disagree on adding a comma after them (I always use a comma). When using e.g., be sure to put commas between each example in your list.
- If you want to set apart your examples or clarification from the rest of the sentence, enclose the abbreviation and the information that follows in parentheses.
- You can put a comma before i.e. and e.g., or a semicolon if you use them to introduce a sentence that follows another sentence.
- For dramatic effect, put an em dash before i.e. and e.g.
Bottom line: i.e. and e.g. are just abbreviations for words – so use them like you’d use “in other words” or “for example.”