Abandon Ye Latin

Lindisfarne Gospels

I started taking Latin in the 6th grade, when we were offered one quarter each of Latin, French, Spanish, and German. I continued through high school, college, and graduate school, for a grand total of, I believe, 11 years of Latin. I am not very good at Latin. Hell, I’m still working on conversational English.

What I have learned well, though, is what all of those nice little Latin abbreviations that pepper our readings actually mean:

 i.e., et al., e.g., etc., cf., cp., ibid.*

Do you know what they mean? It’s a bit of a trick question, because, whether you do or do not know what these stand for (and, thus, know or not know how to employ them properly), my advice is the same: scratch ’em.

I retain an abiding affection for Latin. I can trace an expansive vocabulary and a love of sentence construction back to my years in the classics. They are so dear to me that I lived in Boston University’s “Classics House” for four years. The poets, the scholars, those expert phrase-turners, they all claim some portion of my nerdy little heart. But even I know Latin is dead—insofar as modern writing is concerned, at least.

When you write “i.e.” or “e.g.” rather than “that is” or “for example,” you are setting yourself apart from the audience, bolstering your legitimacy as an authority by claiming a familiarity with some ancient lineage of scholarship. And it’s annoying. (Perhaps worse: if you’re using these wrong, you’re part of a whole new trend and I can’t let that happen to Latin.)

Again, I implore: stop hiding behind jargon, even the beautiful jargon. Talk to your audience—not down to them, but understanding that very few of them are heavily tattooed, foul-mouthed editors with over a decade of Latin under their no-longer-studded belts. If you are not about to send an illuminated manuscript penned on vellum off to AJS or JM, I’m sorry. Latin’s not for you, and I’m clearly a little curmudgeonly.

*Now, loosely, here are the answers:

that is, and others, for example, and the rest, confer (see also), compare (note conflicting evidence from), and in the same place

On the other hand, if you really want to nerd out, might as well start using id. and ead. to make your bibliographies more specific. I’ll let you look those ones up on your own.

For the record, I will particularly miss i.a. and n.b. I welcome your own odes below.

About Letta Page

I am a disarmingly earnest editor, translator of academia, nonfiction revisionary, and domesticated roustabout. More professionally, I might say: I am the senior managing editor of Contexts, founding associate editor and producer of The Society Pages, and a sociology editor, jargon-slayer, and “book doula” for hire. My specialty is in helping authors identify and hone their arguments in ways their target audiences can both understand and use. In this way, I’m a translator, consultant, writing coach, and editor all in one. The senior managing editor of Contexts magazine (the public outreach journal of the American Sociological Association), I have more than two decades’ experience in academic editing across a range of disciplines. I’ve edited and written copy for publications from Oxford University Press, Routledge, Taylor & Francis, W.W. Norton, the University of Chicago Press, Cambridge University Press, Stanford University Press, and many others, including dozens of journals. Today, I specialize in sociology and, as a sort of fun “palate cleanser” (trust me, when you’re editing books on neoliberalism and genocide, it’s always good to have a fallback), I write copy for organizations like Stand Up! Records. I also have a background in the visual arts and was a founder of First Amendment Arts (now Co-Exhibitions) in Minneapolis, MN. I hold degrees in history and classical studies from Boston University and an art degree from the University of Minnesota, and I enjoy most of the things you can imagine Rose from The Golden Girls counts among her hobbies. I received the University of Minnesota’s Public Sociology Award, for outstanding contributions to the discipline and public conversation, in 2019. My truly lovely husband, Josh Page, is a professor of sociology and law at the University of Minnesota, as well as a food writer and founder of Meal magazine. He’s a great writer, and I’m so happy to work alongside him in print and in life.

4 thoughts on “Abandon Ye Latin

  1. we can’t abandon etc.; it’s standard english now. and et al is standard in citations, so that stays. and academic writing ibid, i.e. and e.g. are pretty standard too, though i can see making an argument to not have them in places real human beings read. i’m with you on things like cf (which i still don’t get).

    1. At the very least, I think my harrumphing self just wants to see them used properly, if they’re going to be used. Et al., for instance? I’ve seen it written “et. al” and “et al” too many times. The abbreviation should be correct. And i.e. and e.g. are very different beasts, but used interchangeably. I’m more than okay with old-timey talk, but imprecision just makes me peevish. #oldladypage

  2. if you can’t keep that is and for example conceptually separate, you shouldn’t be writing.

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