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Posted: 31 December 2014
Updated: 16 December 2017

Punctuation using e.g. (or i.e.) and lists of examples

Stack Exchange

Question from English Language & Usage on Stack Exchange

Example: “…folders you want to export e.g., Inbox, Sent, etc. and choose…”

I’m wondering if the above sentence fragment is appropriately punctuated. I’ve recently started using e.g. and am myself a tiny bit of a language snob but haven’t seen this used frequently enough to have come across the “correct” way to punctuate.

The second half of my question would be if this is even the best use of e.g. or should only one example follow. I want to clarify but not run on and on.

My answer

[Read, comment, and vote on my answer at Stack Exchange]

In my reading of the Chicago Manual of Style (but I do not have a copy with me) and from my legal writing experience, the best answer to your question may be to almost entirely avoid answering your question.

First, my training says to only use e.g. when you need to save space, which is almost exclusively in footnotes and endnotes. In the body of the text, “for example” has the same meaning and is perfectly clear to all readers of English.

Second, because e.g. is a foreign phrase, convention dictates italicizing it. The italics draw unnecessary attention to the phrase, so that also counsels against using it.

E.g. means “for example”, so punctuate it just as you would the English phrase. In your above example, I would add a comma after “export” because the phrase beginning with e.g. is a dependent clause and a break in the meter of the sentence.

How many examples should you provide? My legal drafting and interpretation experience is extremely useful here: provide enough examples and the proper examples. Of course, that answer gives you almost no guidance: the issue of examples has been litigated in thousands of cases for hundreds of years on six continents. Nevertheless, a few pointers: the more similar your examples are to each other, the more likely people will interpret your examples to represent a narrow list. If all of your examples have a common element, the more likely people will interpret your examples to require that non-listed examples must have the common element.

All told, I think Mark Twain and William Strunk can help us the most here. Twain would likely say something like, “If you are writing in English, then use English not Latin.” Strunk would chide us to “make every word tell.”