“Be thankful you don’t have to read resumés everyday: it’s depressing.” So said an HR professional to me today. What she meant was that very few of the resumés she reads come without grammatical and spelling errors. Our lack of grammatical precision bothers me because I don’t believe grammar is just a series of arbitrary rules; I believe grammar affects thought. So here, in the first of what may very well be a long-running (and doubtless highly popular) segment in Fox and Hedgehog land, is a brief lesson on grammar and the proper use of i.e. & e.g.
Why Grammar Matters
One of my literary heroes is the stubborn English socialist writer George Orwell. I admire Orwell because of his insistence that language matters, because, as he argues in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” language either obscures or provides clarity. Insisting on precision in language and grammar is not just pedantry, and Orwell writes that he objects to the idea that “any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes.” Rather, language shapes our thoughts so that
an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly…. [my emphasis]
from “Politics and the English Language,” by George Orwell
Grammar matters because grammar is about clarity. It is important to say exactly what you want to say, and not to say what you don’t want to say. Grammar helps us say what we want to say.
I.e., it matters that we get right the difference between i.e. and e.g.
The Slave Who Invented Abbreviation
Several of the grammatical abbreviations we use today were invented over 2,000 years ago by a brilliant Roman slave named Marcus Tullius Tiro. Tiro was born a slave in the household of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullis Cicero, and was Cicero’s close confidante and personal secretary until Cicero’s assassination in 43 B.C. Cicero was a great orator, and Tiro would take notes of Cicero’s speeches in the Roman Forum so they could be published around the Roman Republic. (In recognition of Tiro’s devotion and service, Cicero gave him his freedom in 53 B.C.) To make note-taking easier, Tiro invented a shorthand method that was still used by European monks until the 18th century, and part of that method included the abbreviations that we still use today, e.g., i.e. and e.g., as well as an early version of the ampersand, &.
i.e. is Latin for id est, “that is.” When you see i.e. in a sentence, say “that is.”
e.g. is Latin for exempli gratia, “for the sake of an example.” When you see e.g. in a sentence, say “for example.”
i.e. vs. e.g
These 2 Latin abbreviations do not mean the same thing. E.g.:
There are lots of ridiculous shows on television, e.g., The Bachelor.
means something different than
Last night I saw a commercial for the most ridiculous show on television, i.e., The Bachelor.
In the first example, The Bachelor is just one of the many ridiculous shows on television, whereas in the second example, I want to say that The Bachelor is the most ridiculous show on television.
See the difference?