Almost no one learns Latin anymore. As someone who appreciates the academic tradition for all its dead white men—even and especially for the sake of deconstructing that tradition—I think it’s sad that one of the building blocks of our language remains largely unknown by the public. But as someone who sucks at learning languages, Latin instruction probably wouldn’t have benefited me that much anyway. (Seriously, eight years of French and I could barely speak a word of it when I was still studying it.)
My high school did offer Latin, but cut the program just before my first year, so I missed my chance to pretend I was going to a school like the one in the Dead Poets’ Society. (Given my school district’s funding situation and dedication to intellectual mediocrity, it’s a miracle Latin even made it to the new millennium.) I went to a college where the Classics professors were much beloved, so it’s not as though I never had a chance at Latin again. But I didn’t take that chance, and I only really felt like a bumpkin when I had a class with someone who had studied Latin. It’s true that fewer and fewer people in these modern times have encountered Virgil’s original dactylic hexameter. But Latin is still all around us. When I say, “Latin is all around us,” I’m not about to wax poetic on the fact that Latin runs deep into the etymological roots of our language and provides the foundation of all the Romance languages. No, the actual purpose of this article is to define those weird little Latin abbreviations you probably run into all the time. This is a crash course in what those little letters stand for so that you can use them correctly and maybe even take someone to school while using them. Let’s start with the easiest first…
Re is short for in re, or roughly “in the matter [of].”
Of course, the advent of email has us all using re every day when we hit “reply.” In this case, re means “in reply to,” and is usually followed by a colon. If used within a text such as an email or a memorandum (and something I see related to the email reply prefix), re means “concerning” or “with regards to” or “regarding.” It’s normally followed by a colon, as in, Let’s meet Friday re: making holiday plans. One thing to keep in mind: in re is not always abbreviated as re. For example, I read your last memo in re the changes to the TPS report cover sheets. The phrase is often used in the legal world, but I’m going to skip it here and leave it to much more sophisticated people.
Vs. or v. both stand for versus, which means “against.”
I’ve only had an email address since like 2001, so this was actually the first Latin abbreviation I ever encountered. The most common place you’ll find this abbreviation is in reference to specific legal cases (such as in the movie Kramer vs. Kramer, which is about a divorce case), sports competitions, or even just the comparison of two things. Keep in mind this is “versus” with a “u.” “Verses” with an “e” is the plural of “verse,” which has to do with stanzas of poetry or song. For example, Which style do you prefer when it comes to the verses of Coleridge versus the verses of Wordsworth? Or, abbreviated: Coleridge vs. Wordsworth? I couldn’t find much information on when to use the “vs.” versus the “v.” I have noticed throughout my life usually legal cases use a “v.” instead of “vs.” If you know for sure, please leave a comment!
Etc. stands for et cetera, which translates to “and the rest” or “and so on.”
Anyone who has taken French will recognize “et” as the word for “and”—it’s the same in Latin, but pronounced phonetically in this case. Etc. is usually used to skip over extraneous list items. Usually it’s used to elide over things in a similar vein. You might say, I’ve acquired all the necessary provisions: flour, sugar, cocoa, etc. From the context, you should be able to conclude that everything else I acquired were probably other ingredients necessary to bake a cake. But I saved us a little bit of time but throwing in etc. because I can still make my point without reciting an entire list. One of my favorite examples of the use of etc. can be found in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, when Mr. Wonka tries to send Charlie Bucket away by claiming he breached his contact. As he reads through the legalese, he spits out the occasional “etc., etc.” to breeze through the key points he needs to make. In this case, someone couldn’t infer what the contract says in full, just that most of it isn’t necessary to his scolding of Charlie. (Note: Wonka uses plenty of other Latin phrases you’re welcome to look up on your own time. Fair warning: they may be nonsense.)
Et al. is another abbreviation used to shorten long lists.
It stands for et alii, which means “and others.” Anyone who has ever had to cite multiple authors an MLA Works Cited has had to use et al. to keep the citation relatively short and sweet. Et al. is used to shorten a list of people, not things. It is not interchangeable with etc. For example, Classic fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, et al. are often heavily edited in contemporary re-tellings. Grammarist notes there are no hard-and-fast rules for how to use et al. in a non-MLA citation context. So if you’re writing for someone and truly want to look like a boss, figure out their preferences for the use of et al.
E.g. means exempli gratia, which translates to “for example.”
This abbreviation is used to demonstrate possible examples. So I might say, I love Victorian novels, e.g., Bleak House and Vanity Fair. From this sentence, you would know that I love the novels Bleak House and Vanity Fair, but that my wider tastes probably include other literature of the Victorian era, probably other novels that would fall into the category of “loose baggy monsters.” In other words, any examples you list after e.g. could be followed by etc.
I.e. is Latin for id est, which means “that is.”
I.e. is used to clarify, or to say “in other words.” Many people confuse the use of e.g. and i.e. The easiest way to remember how to use the two is that i.e. is used to show specific examples, while e.g. is used for general examples. So if you take my sentence above and change it to, I love Victorian novels, i.e., Bleak House and Vanity Fair, it means that I only love those two novels rather than others in the same vein. My own personal rule of thumb is to use i.e. when I need to spell something out, such as in the following sentence: Of all the roommates in this house, I think the one who cleans the kitchen (i.e., me) should get a reprieve from cleaning the bathroom. So in this scenario, I’m the only person who cleans the kitchen. If you want more information, Grammar Girl (the bossest of all bosses) has a great article that goes into more detail on the differences between e.g. and i.e.