Many of the words and expressions we write and speak today were “borrowed” from Latin. Hence, they are often referred to as loanwords. Indeed, during what is known as the early Modern English period, which dates from 1500 to 1650, a large influx of Latin terms entered the English language. Of course, we never actually returned them, as one does something they’ve truly borrowed, and thus these words, phrases, and abbreviations, including et al, remain widely in use today. But if you don’t speak Latin, it can be difficult to know if you’re using these loanwords correctly. In particular, distinguishing between Latin abbreviations such as et al and other similar choices—like i.e., e.g., and etc.—can be especially tricky. This article will walk you through the meaning of et al and the various ways in which it can be used correctly, when both writing and speaking.
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Et al is most commonly an abbreviation of the Latin phrase et alia, which means “and others,” with et being the Latin word for and and alia meaning others. It is also an abbreviation for et alii and et aliae, which are other forms and derivatives of the phrase et alia. Et alia is the neuter plural version, while et alii is the masculine plural form and et aliae the feminine plural form. In many foreign languages, including Latin, nouns (even inanimate objects) are associated with or assigned a grammatical gender (masculine, feminine, neuter). You can also think of et al as meaning “and other people” or “and the rest.”
However, et al can also be used as an abbreviation for the Latin phrase et alibi. That said, et alibi is used much less frequently than et alia. Et alibi means “and elsewhere” or “and other places.” It is easy to remember this meaning, as you most likely know the term alibi. An alibi provides the police or courts evidence showing that a person suspected of committing a crime was actually elsewhere (and not at the scene of the crime) when the criminal act occurred, thus proving their innocence.
Et al can be used in a variety of settings for an array of purposes.
In scholarly writing: Et al is most commonly used in scholarly or academic settings to help a writer shorten a long list of contributors to a study or paper (be they editors or authors) when the writer is citing that source in a footnote or bibliography. For example, say you need to create a text citation of a study authored by Frank Smith, Bob Green, Jim Brown, Bill James, and Tom Park. You can use the abbreviation et al after the first name in that list to indicate that there are additional authors credited. This would look like: “Smith et al.” In this case, et al indicates that two or more authors contributed to the work. However, depending on the style of the paper you are writing, there may be different rules to follow. For example, APA style indicates that et al only be used when there are three or more authors or editors. If a study or source has just two authors, APA style dictates both names be listed. APA guidelines also dictate that all authors’ names are mentioned on the first citation of that source, but that et al can be used on subsequent citations. Here are two examples using et al according to APA standards:
Smith F., Green B., Brown J., James B., Park T. (2015). “Study about the proper uses of et al when writing and speaking.” Word Counter Journal, 17, 285-294. doi: coolwebsiteadress (first text citation)
Smith F., Green B., Brown J., et al, (2015). “Study about the proper uses of et al when writing and speaking.” Word Counter Journal, 17, 285-294. doi: coolwebsiteadress (subsequent citations)
Et al can also be used in academic papers in the text itself, and not just in footnotes and bibliography listings. For example: “In reading the study by Smith et al, I determined that et al is a very popular Latin phrase.”
In real estate documents: Similarly, et al is often used in real estate documents, chiefly contracts, to shorten a list of the people involved in a transaction. As with academic studies and sources, you need to first establish the list of people involved in a contract before you can use the abbreviation et al to shorten that list. For example, a deed transfer document would first mention that Amy, John, Lucy, Rose, Sarah, and Nick, who jointly own a property, are deeding it over to husband and wife Mary and Wesley. Then, it could simply say that Amy et al. are deeding the property to Mary and Wesley.
In a legal setting: In a legal environment, et al may be used to indicate that a group of people are acting in the same way or manner, such as several plaintiffs in a case. It can also be used to shorten the list of defendants in a court judgement, saying that the judgement applies to all of the defendants in that case.
Properly Punctuating Et Al
You will see et al written with and without a period—as et al. or et al, no ending punctuation. While both are correct, it does make logical sense to use a period because, as mentioned above, al is an abbreviation of alia, alii, or aliae, while et is the full Latin word for and and thus does not require a period. Et al is italicized throughout this article because the phrase itself is being referenced; however, you typically don’t need to italicize et al when it is part of a list.
A comma should not precede or follow the abbreviation et al unless the sentence requires it grammatically. For instance, et al should be preceded by a comma in a scholarly paper only if more than one name is listed. As an example, the statement “The study by Smith et al is important” does not require a comma, nor does the citation “Smith et al.” However, “The article by Smith, Brown, Green, et al was stellar” does require a comma, as it is a list of more than one name. So would the citation “Smith, Brown, Green, et al.” One way to check if you need to use a comma or not is to substitute the phrase and others for et al.
It can be confusing to know when to write et al as opposed to other Latin abbreviations, such as e.g., i.e., and etc. Remember, et al either means “and others” or “and elsewhere” and is used to shorten a list of people or places.
The abbreviation e.g., which comes from the Latin exempli gratia, means “for example.” Use it when you want to illustrate examples. For instance: “The bar served a variety of cocktails, e.g. mojitos, old fashioneds, and margaritas.
The abbreviation i.e. is taken from the Latin id est, which translates to “that is.” Use it in place of “therefore” or “in other words.” For example: “I am passionate about humanitarian causes, i.e. efforts that seek to promote human welfare and social reform.”
The abbreviation etc. is short for the Latin phrase et cetera, which means “and the rest.” Like et al, it is also used when you’re writing out a list; however, it is used to shorten a list of things, and not often people or places. It is used in informal and formal settings. For example: “I’ll be bringing all the necessary party supplies, such as cupcakes, silverware, paper plates, party hats, etc.”
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