What’s the difference between i.e. and e.g.?

These little abbreviations are actually cases of Latin that have snuck into modern English usage. It’s safe to say that most people don’t know what they stand for, and most aren’t exactly sure about their usage either. Become an example-writing expert with this article!

What do they mean?

As mentioned, i.e. and e.g. are abbreviations for Latin words. The first, i.e., stands for id est, which translates to “that is” (a kind of “in other words…” type introduction). The second, e.g., stands for exempli gratia which means “for the sake of example”.

So how do you use them?

Both i.e. and e.g. indicate examples, but the difference in usage comes directly from their respective meanings. Notice that the first promises to restate the idea, which should mean every possible option is included in the list of examples.

There are four seasons (i.e., spring, summer, fall, and winter).

There are no more possible entries in this list — it’s exhaustive. That’s how you know i.e. is the choice you want. You can test your choice by substituting in the translations:

There are four seasons (that is, spring, summer, fall, and winter).
There are four seasons (for the sake of example, spring, summer, fall, and winter).

Which sounds more natural? The first indicates a comprehensive restatement: the items in parentheses cover exactly the same idea as the item outside of them. Seasons = spring, summer, fall, winter. This identity is exact with no other possible options.

The second substitution, on the other hand, makes it seem like the names of the four seasons were selected casually from a greater list of possible options — that these four are “just for the sake of example”, not necessarily representative of the entire category. Yet, these four compose the whole set. For this reason, i.e. fits and e.g. does not.

If you have a case with many options, then, and you wish to list only a few, e.g. would be your choice, since it suggests that the list is not exhaustive.

There are so many colors in the fall leaves (e.g., red, orange, and even green).

Imagine the substitutions from above again and ask yourself which seems to fit better. Keep in mind that there could be hundreds of colors in those leaves, including all the tones between the basic labels of “red” and “orange”. To list all of them would be impossible and to suggest that the sample list of three is equivalent to the whole would be misleading. As a result, since the examples to not include the whole set, use e.g. to express the right relationship.

What about the Punctuation?

Notice that the examples above place both i.e. and e.g. in parentheses. This makes the organization of ideas between the original and the restatement of examples very clear, but it is not strictly necessary. You can also simply distinguish the phrase with a preceding comma:

There are four seasons, i.e., spring, summer, fall, and winter.
There are so many colors in the fall leaves, e.g., red, orange, and even green.

This is grammatically correct, but I recommend that you use parentheses for clarity. If you do use the comma, however, notice that there should also be a comma at the end of the phrase if the sentence continues.

There are four seasons, i.e., spring, summer, fall, and winter, each of which are beautiful in their own way.
There are so many colors in the fall leaves, e.g., red, orange, and even green, which are all hidden until the light hits them just right.

So, a comma precedes and follows the example phrase. Notice how much easier it would be to distinguish the sentence parts with parentheses, though:

There are four seasons (i.e., spring, summer, fall, and winter) each of which are beautiful in their own way.
There are so many colors in the fall leaves (e.g., red, orange, and even green) which are all hidden until the light hits them just right.

Now you don’t have to worry about figuring out which commas simply denote the items in the list and which represent the end of the example phrase overall.

Also notice that in either case the abbreviations i.e. and e.g. are both immediately followed by a comma. Imagine their translations again:

There are four seasons (that is, spring, summer, fall, and winter).
There are four seasons (for the sake of example, spring, summer, fall, and winter).

It’s easier to see that the commas are necessary when the sentences are phrased like this, but i.e. and e.g. behave the same way as their substitutes above, which is why the commas are necessary.

There you go! That’s the rundown on i.e. and e.g.; now you can use them with confidence!

Let’s Practice!

Choose (a) i.e. or (b) e.g. to complete the following sentences, then check your answers at the end of the page.

  1. The coffee shop is only open a few hours a day (___, 5–8pm).
  2. “I want lots of things for my birthday!” Timmy chirped. “___, a bike, a football, and a trip to Disney!”
  3. Please choose one of our two new models (___, black or white).
  4. On the exam, the choices were limited (___, a, b, c, or d).
  5. What are your favorite pastimes? (___, reading, traveling, or sports.)
  6. This course is pass or fail, so there are only two options (___, P or F).
  7. What kind of grade do you think you made? (___, an A or a B?)
  8. I already gave him my answer (___, I can’t join the club).
  9. I’ve had a lot of favorite books over time (___, The Princess Bride and Tuck Everlasting).
  10. I’ve only traveled to a few countries so far (___, Korea and the U.S.), but I want to visit more!

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(Answers: 1.a, 2.b, 3.a, 4.a, 5.b, 6.a, 7.b, 8.a, 9.b, 10.a)

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