Monday, April 11, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: E

The fifth part of my alphabetical ravings against that-which-I-do-not-like, whether they be mistakes or just unpleasant choices.

This extended enumeration, in my estimation, expresses some of the most egregious editorial errors ever employed in the English language.

e.g. vs. i.e.

Most people don't really need these abbreviations at all. If writers around the world just stopped using e.g. and i.e., you know who would notice? Copy editors. A whole bunch of happy, happy copy editors.

But anyway, here's what you don't need to know about these two abbreviations:
  • e.g. stands for exempli gratia and means "for example."
  • i.e. stands for id est and means "that is."
That's the easy part. The hard part is remembering how to use them. Remember this:
  • They are not interchangeable.
  • Unless you have an oversized, infected tongue piercing, when you say the word example, the first syllable sounds an awful lot like "eg." Now, which abbreviation do you use when you're showing an "eg-xample"? That's right!
  • If that doesn't steer you to the right abbreviation, try this: The abbreviation for "that is" has an i in it, just like "that is" does! "For example" doesn't have any is.
  • Both abbreviations should be followed by a comma.
  • Don't end a list that follows e.g. with an etc. Inherent in e.g. is the fact that you're showing examples, not a comprehensive list.Use e.g. or etc., but not both.
  • They are not interchangeable.
Here's how they look in action: Your body's most visible muscle (i.e., the tongue) should not be decorated (e.g., pierced, split, tattooed) in any way if you want to be able to taste your beer well into your eighties.*

Enormity vs. enormousness

Plenty of editors, linguists, and lexicographers will tell you that enormity can be a synonym of enormousness and can be used in the same way. I'm not one of those editors.

Enormity, people like me will tell you, refers to something that is metaphorically large, in a wicked or outrageous way, meaning that it has huge repercussions. The enormity of discovering intelligent life on another planet. The enormity of Hitler's "final solution." The enormity of the decision to donate a kidney.

A few editors might occasionally let you get away with phrases like, "I can't get over the enormity of this cruise ship!" But most won't, especially if they weren't invited on the cruise.


It would be wrong for me to say that enthuse isn't a word; but it wouldn't be such an awful thing to say. Enthuse, Bill Bryson tells us well in Troublesome Words, "is a back formation — that is, a word coined from an existing word on the erroneous assumption that the new word forms the root of the old word."

Some back formations have become so common that we don't realized their backward origins — bartend, bulldoze, decadent, and swindler, to name just a few — and these are all perfectly good words. But not all back formations are so pleasant.

No back formation (with the possible exception of orientate) rubs me the wrong way quite like enthuse does. So the next time you think about saying or writing about how you enthused about something or other, try raving about it instead. Or rhapsodizing. Or talking up. Or just be excited or enthusiastic about it.That might be why enthuse bugs me so much: Its creation didn't fill a specific hole in the lexicon — not the way the back formation I mentioned earlier did. Instead, it squeezed itself into a spot that was already flush with better words.

So please? Can't we all refuse to enthuse?

Et cetera

Even if you abbreviate et cetera as etc., the et at the beginning means "and." You would no sooner want to write "and etc." than you would write "and and so on."

And remember that etc. is a stand-in for the rest of the list, not a stand-in for one item on the list. I don't care how many times you've seen The King and I, one etc is all you need!

*Yes, I know that the tongue comprises sixteen different muscles, not just one. So sue me. This is a blog for logophiles, not physical therapists.