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Thursday, November 17, 2016

EwR Commentary - COMPLETE ARTICLE: The Expendable Use of the Word "Et cetera" (Etcetera or Etc.)


There are many people who use the abbreviation "etc." for the word "etcetera" in their writing.  Some people even use this word during speech.  Are you one of those people who uses the word "etcetera" all the time?  Have you ever asked yourself why you do it?  Maybe after you read this you will never use this word again.  In order to contemplate why you might hesitate to use either the word "etcetera" or its abbreviation "etc.", let's reflect upon the three following relevant pieces of information: (1) the origin, definition and usage of the word "etcetera"; (2) the reason why so many people use this word and its abbreviation; and (3) alternatives that exist in order to avoid using the word "etcetera" (etc.).

To begin with, it will help to understand the origin, definition and usage of the word "etcetera" and its abbreviation "etc.".  The early 15th century Latin words "et" and "cetera" are the root of the one-word form which literally means "and" plus "that which remains".  The common abbreviation before the 20th century was "&c."; but as we all know today; it is written "etc."

The word "etcetera" (also written "et cetera") is almost always written in its abbreviated form (etc.) and is said in its full form (et cetera, etcetera).  It is used to show that more examples of the same type or nature of something exist, but are being excluded in order to keep the written or oral communication briefer.

Let's take a look at two specific examples.  In our first example, you can say "etcetera" (or write "etc.") in the following statement in order to demonstrate that there are more fruits that exist in your purchase, but that they are not being mentioned here in order to be brief - "I bought some pears, apples, etcetera / et cetera / etc. at the grocery store".  When the word "etcetera" (or its abbreviation "etc.") is used in the middle of a sentence, it may be followed by a comma (,), semi-colon (;), colon (:), or a dash mark (-). in order to separate phrases.  In our particular case above, none of these punctuation marks are necessary since a clause isn't being used after the word or its abbreviation.

Our second example statement includes the following where we use "etcetera" (or "etc.") at the end of the same aforementioned sentence.  In this case the statement would be written "I bought some fruit at the grocery store including pears, apples, etc.", or can be said "I bought some fruit at the grocery store including pears, apples, etcetera (et cetera)".  Notice that the written sentence doesn't need an additional period at the end of it since the abbreviation "etc." already includes one.

The second thing we want to consider here is why so many people use this word and its abbreviation in the first place.  Some of the main reasons that make the use of the abbreviation "etc." so appealing in writing, or the verbal usage of the word "etcetera" (or "et cetera) out loud include the following.  Since the word and its abbreviation are derived from Latin, some people think that it sounds sophisticated to use it.  A person might use "etcetera" in order to sound more educated than they really are.  This is the case of trying to impress someone with your language skills.  Most listeners and readers just don't buy it.

Another reason is to try and save time by using the abbreviation in writing, or to say the word aloud.  This actually has the contrary effect since its application provokes doubt about why it's being used in the first place.  The question in one's mind is whether or not the user of this word is really trying to save time, or is trying to avoid being specific in order to not give more examples of the same type.

A further example about why some people choose to use the word "etcetera" and its contraction is because it is habit-forming.  It sounds interesting because it's a Latin-based word, and it's easy to use and say.  For example, there are people who like to use short language forms when writing text messages or during live chats with others that they know very well.  This usage, however, can be very confusing sometimes, especially if you are communicating with foreigners.  The abbreviation "etc." can easily be misunderstood if it isn't used carefully.  Abbreviations and acronyms often confuse second language users of English.  If you want to avoid giving someone else a wrong idea, it's better to refrain from using the abbreviation "etc." or its full form in all types of communication.

Last of all, let's discover what alternatives exist in order to avoid using the abbreviation "etc." and its full form ("etcetera" or "et cetera")An important observation here is to note that this word and its abbreviation are usually not even taught in schools to begin with.  Teachers frown upon its usage, and especially on the teaching of abbreviations like "etc.".  Since this is the case, we have alternatives available to us so that we don't use either of them in the first place.  Here are some alternate options.

Remember that "etc." is used in order to say "and so on" when you are writing (or saying) a list of things that all belong to the same category.  Let's recall the example that was used above in the fourth paragraph - "I bought some pears, apples, etcetera / et cetera / etc. at the grocery store".  If you are talking to someone who knows that you always buy pears, apples, oranges and grapes, then you can say "I bought some pears, apples, etcetera at the grocery store".  This person knows that "etcetera" means "and so on", which in this case means "oranges and grapes".  However, if you are talking to someone who doesn't know this habit of yours, then you should simply identify all of the fruits that you buy, and avoid using the word "etcetera" at all.  Therefore, you would say "I bought some pears, apples, oranges and grapes at the grocery store".  In other words, be specific and name exactly what items you bought.  Don't be vague and say "etcetera" in order to be more brief.  The objection here is that the usage of "et cetera" is not explicit enough, and therefore should be avoided by all means.  It confuses the listener or reader since they don't know you well enough to understand what "etcetera" means to you in this particular case.

Keep in mind that conscientious writers avoid using acronyms and abbreviations like "etc." in their written text.  Instead, they use more precise wording at the end of a list, and write "for example", "including" or "such as".  The list of items in any particular category is not left open-ended.  In fact, it's limited to a specific number of items.  This way of writing avoids any misunderstandings for the reader.  The writer's message is easily understood and properly communicated with clear ideas.  There is no room for misinterpretation, as is the case in the above example about the four fruits that were bought; namely, pears, apples, oranges and grapes.

Another way that writers prevent using the abbreviation "etc." is to include a finite list of items from their category of things and precede it with the abbreviation "e.g.", which is Latin for "exempli gratia" and means "for example".  The usage of an abbreviation here is an exception that is widely used by all writers in formal writing.  For example, if you were to write a message to someone using the above example with the list of different fruits, you could write "I bought some fruit (e.g., pears, apples, oranges and grapes) at the grocery store".  Notice that the abbreviation "e.g." is followed by a comma in order to separate it from the list of different items in the same category, which in this case are different kinds of fruit.

All things considered, and as you can see from the previous examples given above, it is absolutely unnecessary to use the word "etcetera" in speech and the abbreviation "etc." in writing. They are both completely expendable.  It is of the utmost importance to communicate as clearly as possible in order to prevent confusion and misunderstanding, not only for native people, but also for second language users of English.

Maybe now you will hesitate to use either the word "etcetera" ("et cetera") or its abbreviation "etc." when you are communicating with others.  Remind yourself to think clearly before speaking to someone or writing something down on paper whenever you list items that belong to a particular category.  Keep your list of examples short enough so that it expresses precisely what is included in the category that you want to communicate to someone.  It's not necessary to list all of them.  Only mention three or four items at the most and you won't need to use the word "etcetera" or its abbreviation.  People are not interested in guessing each and every item on your entire list when you use "etcetera" or "etc."  They want you to specify what's on your list, since you are the one who knows that information.  Therefore, avoid using "et cetera" and its abbreviation.

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