Latin abbreviations in English

Some find them outdated and archaic, but they are still very much around, and just won’t go away: Latin abbreviations in English!

While most of them tend to be used in formal, academic writing, a number of them feature in everyday spoken language, as well: a.m. and p.m. in reference to time, AD when talking about the Common Era, etc. (See what I’ve just done?) A number of Latin abbreviations have become so common that in many cases native speakers don’t even know where they come from and exactly what did they stand for originally – unless they’ve had some Latin in school.

All these abbreviations can be seen as a relic of a bygone era – a time when Latin was the language of science and learning: from the late antiquity over the middle ages down to the early modern period – in some countries even later. That status is gone, sadly, but the traces left by the Latin language, and the culture(s) that heavily relied on it, are still present everywhere you look; these abbreviations are just one small example.

English learners should familiarise themselves with the more common ones, as they will encounter them from time to time, particularly in formal writing. In this article we’ll have a look at only ten (not all of them very formal), illustrating different conventions when it comes to how they are used, abbreviated, or said out loud.

Let the countdown begin – here’s my list of top 10 Latin abbreviations in English!

#10 v / vs

“Everton vs Liverpool”. “The People v. O. J. Simpson”. From the world of sports to court procedures, the meaning is clear from the context. The letter v stands for the Latin word versus – “against”, [ˈvɜː(r)səs]. You’ll find this abbreviation written in any of the following four ways: v., v, vs., vs.

#09 i.a.

This quite formal abbreviation stands for the Latin phrase inter alia[ˌɪntə(r) ˈeɪliə], meaning “among other things” (which is how you would normally say it). For example, this blog is dedicated to language, culture, and literature, i.a. In all honesty, you would rarely find it used like that; nowadays it’s largely restricted to legal English.

#08 cf.

Another abbreviation used in formal, mainly academic writing. It stand for the Latin imperative verb confer = “compare”, and you’ll frequently find it in footnotes and comments where an author recommends another source or piece of information that should be consulted for comparison or contrast.

#07 N.B.

Another Latin imperative; N.B. stand for nota bene = “note well”. An author might use it in formal writing when they wish to point out a particularly important piece of information.

#06 p.a.

You’ve just signed a contract worth $3.600 p.a. Is that a lot? Well, let’s see: p.a. stands for per annum [pər ˈænəm] = “each year, yearly”. Nowadays its use is largely limited to business English.

#05 c.

One of my favourite historical figures, Hildegard of Bingen, was born c. 1098. When exactly? We don’t know, but that year is a fair estimate. The letter c. stands for circa [ˈsɜːkə] = “about, around”, and it’s used to give an approximation, often relating to a date.

#04 et al.

Another abbreviation that you’ll see in formal / academic writing, especially in citation. It stands for “and others”, which can be – depending on the grammatical gender, any of the following three forms in Latin: et alii (m.), et aliae (f.), et alia (n.). This may look like pedantry, but there is an interesting convention with regards to the use of comma before et al.: when we use it after referencing only one name, comma is not used; for instance, “The book was written by Wood et al.” If there’s more than one name mentioned, a comma is inserted before et al.: “This study was written by Wood, Michaelson, et al.” Referencing conventions can be a bit of a nightmare; if you’re submitting for publication, do make sure you follow standard rules, however strange they may seem.

#03 i.e.

This one stands for the Latin phrase id est, simply meaning “that is”. You can say it like that, or just spell the initials [ˌaɪ ˈiː]. Note that in two-word Latin abbreviations there are typically no spaces between letters and dots in writing.

#02 e.g.

Frequently used, e.g. stands for the Latin phrase exempli gratia = “for example, for instance”, which is how it’s usually said. You can also spell the initials: [iːˈdʒiː].

#01 etc.

Unlike most of the previous examples, this abbreviation is commonly said using the full Latin phrase, although there are several suitable English phrases. Et cetera [ɪtˈset.ər.ə] means “and so on”, “and so forth”, “and other similar things”. You will also see it written like this: etc, et cet., &c, &c.

If you have a good ear, you might have noticed a contemporary phonetic change in how many people pronounce this phrase, namely as [ɪkˈset.ər.ə], with a K sound instead of a T. This is becoming so pervasive that some native speakers of English are convinced that this happens to be the correct way of pronouncing it. Who knows, it might become the standard one some day, but for now this is a case of hypercorrection on their part.

The following Wikipedia entry contains a list of common – and not so common – Latin abbreviations in English. It might come in handy!

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