I.G., Confounding Latin Phrases

Conjugating Latin verbs is not as easy as it looks.

English is a polyglot language, derived from many others including Norwegian, French, German, and of course, Latin. So chances are if you’re writing in English you’ll have the opportunity to make use of a good many Latin words and phrases, some of which can be a little troubling. Here’s a quick refresher to a few of the more common Latin words and phrases you may come across on a day-to-day basis.

Many of us are familiar with the problems posed by e.g. and i.e. E.g. stands for exempli gratia, meaning for example. So if you’re going to provide instances of, you want to use e.g.

Please submit your best macaroni and cheese recipes (minus any processed cheese, e.g., Velveeta).

I.e. means that is, and it stands for id est. It means that you’re going to provide a definition or an explanation of whatever you just named; that is, you will expound further upon the idea you just presented, like so.

For some reason, I’ve recently heard the expression per se used frequently, almost like filler at the end of a sentence, prompting me to check the correct usage.

Per properly means for each: eggs are selling are $1.25 per dozen. The sense of according to is an informal usage that should be shunned in business writing: Per Robert, our air conditioning system should be repaired by the end of the week. As a prefix, per means through, also through and through, or thoroughly, as in pervasive.

The phrase per se thus means in and of itself, intrinsically. You can say for example of a discussion of fine art that you want to discuss the colors of a painting per se; in other words you wish to discuss the colors absent of any form, content, or style, but as they are, in and of themselves.

You cannot, however, say that you wish to debate the colors per se and then go on to discuss them in relation to issues of perspective, depth, or period. In that case, you are no longer discussing the colors per se but relative to other aspects of the painting.

A fact or happening or circumstance that is de facto is not prescribed by any standard or law but is accepted nonetheless. It is often used in an apologetic or explanatory fashion to describe something that would otherwise appear at odds with propriety.

Blogging is slowly becoming the de facto vetting procedure for scientific and academic journal articles as traditional publishing routes become more expensive and cumbersome.

De facto is not so often misused as it is misspelled. It’s two words, not one. It’s not capitalized unless it’s at the beginning of the sentence, and then only the D and not the F takes a capital letter. And it’s not normally italicized. (I’ve done so in this blog post to highlight words as words, for the sake of example, not because they’re Latin.) 

It would be remiss of me not to mention here sic, in full sic erat scriptum, thus was it written. The most common use of sic is in a quotation to indicate that the quotation is reproduced in full with all spelling and grammatical errors intact. Its purpose is generally to absolve the author of any imputation of ignorance or carelessness in the reproduction of the quote.

“What are your thoughts abut the revelation of the $200,000 from Zimmerman’s PayPay [sic] accounts?” (“George Zimmerman’s defense team launches social media campaignWashington Post 30 April 2012)

Of course, if you insert a [sic] where no error resides, you run the risk of looking like a total idiot. Remember that times change. The [sic] is generally not used for spelling, capitalization, or punctuation marks from manuscripts that are older or literary, such as the Declaration of Independence or the plays of Shakespeare, where these differences are acknowledged by literate people to be acceptable standards of written English at the time of their publication, not errors.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. (While this punctuation and capitalization was standard for 1774, it would be considered irregular today. Governments would not be capitalized. Shewn would be shown. The semicolon before and would be changed to a comma, and either the comma before while would be removed or another would be added after sufferable.)

When [sic] is used to point out a factual error, it sometimes draws criticism, particularly in politics. Compare these two examples, one from former President Bush and one from Rush Limbaugh.

We spent a lot of time talking about Africa, as we should. Africa is a nation [sic] that suffers from incredible disease.

Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society.

The first contains a mistake in fact. Africa is not a nation, but a continent. The second contains an opinion from a commentator. We may disagree with the opinion, but we would not likely mark it in copy as an error. The distinction is fine, and one that sparks debate among journalists, editors, commentators, and the public.

What other Latin words or phrases have you seen used or misused? Which ones cause you trouble? And which have you mastered? Be sure to share your experiences so we can all learn together!


  1. The StyleWriter copy-editing software checks all uses of Latin in writing and gives plain English alternatives. If you look at professionally edited publications such as Newsweek and TIME, they don’t use e.g., i.e., etc., per se and so on. They use the English alternatives that StyleWriter suggests. This is just one way copy-editing software can improve your writing style.

    Nick Wright

  2. Dear Michelle,
    I love the Latin language and spend part of my time thinking in it. Thanks for sharing.
    I will certainly be praying for your family as we all inch through the tight, difficult years. Many are touched so painfully.

  3. When I was taught the definition of per se, I was told it meant, ‘a statement that cannot be disputed.’ If my mind wasn’t so old, lol, I would remember what it applied to; I think it was something to do with the UK Theft Act.
    I liked your article as it taught me something.
    Thank you
    Nigel 😉

  4. Stephen Hillyer says:

    Latina Lingua from UCONN offers a free program for conjugating Latin verbs. I include this because your blog for Latin words contains the phrase “conjugating verbs in Latin isn’t easy”.

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