Difference Between i.e. and e.g.

Learning Latin is not as common in British schools as it used to be, but knowing some of the ancient language is essential for a lot of degrees taught in English, especially law. As an EFL student, you probably won’t encounter too much Latin, but two oft-mistaken terms you will definitely come across are i.e. and e.g.

Latin

I.e. is an abbreviation of id est, which means ‘that is’, and we use it when clarifying or rephrasing whatever came before, often by giving more detail. Take a look at the following examples:

  • Taking the IELTS exam without studying is like climbing Everest without preparation, i.e. a terrible idea.
  • Please pass me my favourite book, i.e. the one with the blue cover.
  • If I study in the US, I only want to go to one of the best universities, i.e. Harvard, Yale or MIT.

In the first example, taking an exam without studying is compared to climbing Everest without preparation. This simile is then rephrased as “a terrible idea.” In the second sentence, the speaker asks for her/his favourite book, before clarifying which one it is. In the last sentence, the speaker talks about “the best universities” and uses i.e. to denote that s/he thinks Harvard, Yale, and MIT are the three best universities in the US.

Yale

Because i.e. is used to rephrase what came before, we can normally replace the words on the left of i.e. with the words on the right. The above three sentences could be rewritten as:

  • Taking the IELTS exam without studying is like climbing Everest without preparation, i.e. a terrible idea.
  • Please pass me my favourite book, i.e. the one with the blue cover.
  • If I study in the US, I only want to go to one of the best universities, i.e. Harvard, Yale or MIT.

e-g

E.g. is short for exempli gratia, which means ‘for example’. It is only used to give examples.

  • I love playing sports, e.g. football and rugby.
  • He likes reading fantasy books, e.g. Harry Potter.
  • If I study in the US, I only want to go to one of the best universities, e.g. Harvard, Yale or MIT.

In the first sentence, the speaker gives examples of two of the many sports s/he loves to play. The second sentence is similar; the person in question enjoys reading fantasy books, and although he likes a lot of different books in that genre, one example – Harry Potter – is given after e.g. The third sentence is where things start to get a bit difficult. Again, the speaker talks about the best universities, but this time s/he uses e.g. instead of i.e. In this case, s/he thinks there are many universities within the definition of ‘best‘, but is giving just three examples.

One of the most common mistakes I see from students is using e.g. to list an entire group. “I’ve been to the three biggest cities in the world, e.g. Tokyo, New York, and Sao Paulo,” is incorrect. In this example, i.e. should be used, because you are rephrasing (three biggest cities = Tokyo, New York, and Sao Paulo) and not giving examples. You can only use e.g. to provide a sample of the total population. “I’ve travelled to many exotic places, e.g. Indonesia, Brazil, and Croatia,” is okay when the total population (exotic places travelled to) is greater than the number of examples (3).

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