January 8, 2009

Weekly Language Usage Tips: e.g., etc., and et al. & awhile and a while

Posted in awhile and a while, e.g., et al., etc. at 7:32 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: e.g., etc., and et al.

About a year ago, we addressed the differences between e.g. and i.e. and pointed out that the abbreviations were not interchangeable. Now, I’m going to write a little about e.g. and etc. with a touch of et al. As you may recall, e.g. stands for the Latin ‘exempli gratia’ and means ‘for example.’ Etc. stands for etcetera and is derived from the Latin ‘et caetera’ which means ‘and the rest.’ Et al. comes from the Latin ‘et alia’ and means ‘and others.’ The reason I am writing about this, today, is that I have been seeing the following constructs fairly often of late:

We will control for sociodemographic characteristics (e.g., age, sex, weight, height, income, etc.).

and

We will control for sociodemographic characteristics (e.g., age, sex, weight, height, income, and etc.).

While their precise meanings are different, using e.g. and etc. together is really redundant. Age, sex, weight, height, and income are just examples of sociodemographic characteristics so we know that there are other items that could be included in the list, and etc., in this context, is superfluous.

Since etc. means ‘and the rest’ or ‘and others’, the use of the word ‘and’ before etc. is also incorrect. You would be saying ‘and and the rest’ or ‘and and others,’ neither of which makes sense.

And finally, et al. Where etc. refers to things, et al. refers to people. So these abbreviations would be use the following way:

We will control for sociodemographic characteristics e.g. age, sex, weight, height, income, and other items.

We will control for sociodemographic characteristics e.g. age, sex, weight, height, income, etc.

My favorite poets include Roethke, Cummings, Whitman, Williams, and other artists.

My favorite poets include Roethke, Cummings, Whitman, Williams, et al.

If you find it’s too tricky to remember the meanings of these abbreviations, it’s best to use English words. And finally, if you’re trying to decide between using e.g. and etc., the default should probably be e.g. which is a bit more formal and more appropriate for our writing.

Tip 2: Awhile and a while

These words are often confused and for good reason: their meanings are similar and they look alike, too. While there can be some confusion, it’s fairly simple to differentiate them. ‘Awhile’ is an adverb and means ‘for a period of time.’ Note that the word ‘for’ is built into the meaning. ‘A while’ is a noun phrase that is often used as the object of the preposition, and it means ‘a period of time.’ The rules for usage are these:

If the word ‘for’ is stated explicitly, then you must use ‘a while.’ If not the object of a preposition, you will to use ‘awhile.’

To conduct the experiment, she ran on the treadmill for a while.

To conduct the experiment, she ran on the treadmill awhile.

You would never want to say, ”she ran on the treadmill for awhile” since ‘for’ is implicit in ‘awhile.’ You would essentially be saying, ”she ran on the treadmill for for a while.”

Last thoughts

I want to mention a pretty cool charitable foundation that I found recently. A number of months ago, I stumbled upon a website called Donors Choose (donorschoose.org). On this website, you can look at school projects all around the country that teachers are trying to raise money for. You can sort them by poverty level, geographic area, subject focus, and other criteria. When you find a project you would like to donate to or fund in its entirety, you submit the information to Donors Choose. What’s cool about this organization, is that although not immediate, there is gratification. Several months ago, I contributed to a project to build bookcases for a library in a poor school in Pittsburgh (I’m a big fan of encouraging kids to read as you might imagine). Afterwards, I didn’t think about it. But Monday, after coming back from winter break, I found an envelope on my desk from Donors Choose. Inside were about a dozen original drawings of the bookcases by the kids in the class (3rd grade), about 20 hand written thank you letters saying why they were thankful for them (clearly a class assignment), and a dozen pictures of the kids in the class in front of the bookcases. These were all originals. It was really fun to read how much the kids appreciated the bookcases. I liked one letter in particular because the student wrote to say she liked the bookshelves because they made her teacher (Mrs. Stewart) happy. I just thought this was pretty neat so I thought it would pass it on.

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