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I.e.–Don’t Even Think About It

In writing classes, participants often ask about the abbreviation i.e. They want to know how to capitalize and punctuate it. But my response goes beyond those questions. I recommend not even using it.

Here is my explanation: Almost no one knows what i.e. means. I can say this because in writing classes I ask everyone to write a definition of i.e. Here is what I find:

About 40 percent say i.e. means "for example."
About 35 percent say i.e. means "in example."
About 15 percent have no idea what i.e. means.
About 10 percent say i.e. means "that is."

Only the 10 percent who say that i.e. means "that is" are correct.

As a business writer, would you use an abbreviation that only 10 percent of your readers understand? I would not–and that's why I never use i.e.

I.e. means "that is."  The abbreviation comes from the Latin id est. These sentences use i.e. correctly:

  • Nigel works the night shift, i.e., midnight until 8 a.m.
  • This landscaper suggests only native plants, i.e., ones that are naturally part of this ecosystem.
  • Margie is a strict vegetarian, i.e., one who eats absolutely no products derived from animals.

These sentences use i.e. incorrectly:

  • I like historical mysteries, i.e., books by Elizabeth Peters and Anne Perry.
  • Let's begin with an activity to loosen up the group, i.e., a verbal scavenger hunt.

The two sentences above need "for example"–not "that is." Therefore, i.e. is wrong.

The correct abbreviation of "for example" is e.g. from the Latin "exempli gratia." However, because of the confusion between i.e. and e.g., I always spell out the phrase.

Here are a few rules I recommend:

  1. Avoid i.e. because it is rarely understood. If you must use the abbreviation because of limited space, be sure that you intend the meaning "that is."
  2. Use e.g. sparingly. It too is often misunderstood. Be sure your meaning is "for example."
  3. When you use any of these expressions, insert a comma after them: for example, that is, i.e., e.g. Depending on the sentence structure, insert either a comma, semicolon, or dash before the expressions. The semicolon and dash communicate a stronger break. I use a comma nearly all the time. 
  4. Although foreign words are usually italicized when used in English documents, do not italicize i.e. and e.g. (according to The Chicago Manual of Style). I have italicized them here to single them out in the sentence.

I.e.? Don't even think about it–i.e, don't use it in business writing that must be understood by all.

Other search spellings: abreviation, abbreviaton, idest, exmaple, emxaple

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.