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The Word Guy: Use i.e. before a list, e.g. before explanation

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By Robb Kyff
Friday, June 27, 2014, 8:57 p.m.

Question: One linguistic usage that always throws me for a loop is whether to use “i.e.” or “e.g.” to cite an example or examples.

Would you mind clarifying the rules around this?

— Debbie, via email

Answer: I'll be glad to, i.e., I'll explain.

The abbreviation “i.e.,” which stands for the Latin “id est” (“that is”), should be used to precede phrases or clauses that explain or clarify a statement, as in “Bainbridge referred continually to his ‘windfall,' i.e., his lottery winnings,” or “I have a problem with Zeno, i.e., I detest his dishonesty.” (The “i.e.” may be preceded by a comma or semicolon.)

By contrast, “e.g.,” which stands for the Latin “exempli gratia” (“for example”), should be used to precede one or more examples, as in “George enjoys Italian foods, e.g., spaghetti, lasagna and pizza.”

The most common mistake people make is using “i.e.” for “e.g.,” as in “Molly enjoys several kinds of music, i.e., rock, folk and blues.” Don't do that.

Just remember that “i.e.” precedes explanations and “e.g.” precedes lists.

A trick that helps me with this choice is to think of “i.e.” as standing for “I explain.”

Q: What's the derivation of “pinky,” as in this sentence: “He had 12 points and 10 assists in his second game back after a 10-game absence with a broken right pinky.”

— Art Frackenpohl, Potsdam, N.Y.

A: Funny how an injury to a small finger can sideline a big man. I broke two fingers in a pickup basketball game once, and, 36 years later, those two fingers are still crooked.

Unlike my fingers, the origin of “pinkie” is straightforward: The Dutch word “pinck” meant “small,” and its diminutive form, “pinkje,” referred to the smallest finger. English adopted this term around 1800, spelling it “pinkie,” sometimes “pinky.”

But can we put our finger on a connection between “pinkie” and the color pink? Here's where things get interesting.

According to etymological expert Evan Morris, the Scots adopted the Dutch term “pinck” to mean “small” during the 1500s. So, when they saw that eyes stricken with conjunctivitis looked half-shut and small, they called this medical condition “pink eye” (“small eye”).

And when they noticed that the pale red flower of the plant genus Dianthus resembled a half-closed eye, they called this flower “pink eye,” too, eventually shortening it to “pink.” Soon, they were using the term “pink” to describe the pale red color of the flower.

So the Dutch word “pinck” connects “pinkie” and “pink.”

Rob Kyff is a teacher in West Hartford, Conn. Send reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, to or to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 Third St., Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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