What's the Difference Between Etc. and Et Al?

Etc. and et al. are two commonly confused abbreviations. Although their meanings are related, they really are two distinct terms.

“Etc.” means “and so on,” while et al. means “and others.” So, what’s the difference between etc. and et al.? And how can you avoid the classic mistake of interchanging the two? Let’s put on our Latin hats and discuss.

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True Translations

Latin continues to color the English language. Common Latin words and phrases used in English include bona fide (in good faith), cum laude (with honor), and pro bono (for the good). Of course, etc. and et al. rank high on the list too. Let’s take a look at their full translations.

Etc.

The abbreviation "etc." is Latin for “et cetera,” which is where we get “and so on” from. It’s used to indicate a list of items is continuing on. For example:

“Their new refrigerator was stocked with milk, eggs, butter, etc.

It sort of says, “You get the idea.” While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s best to reserve "etc." for informal writing. “You know what I mean” isn’t the kind of tone you want to take in academic writing; it has a shade of informality to it.

Furthermore, "etc." can only be used if it’s easy to discern the remaining items. For example, it’s okay to say, “She packed her lipstick, eyeshadow, blush, concealer, etc.” It’s clear we’re talking about makeup.

But, let’s take a look at a list that’s slightly less specific. “On her trip to Ireland, she packed her passport, favorite books, clothes, laptop, etc.” That’s a pretty varied list. If you were just listing official documents, books, articles of clothing, or electronics, then "etc." would be acceptable.

Although it’s likely "etc." will fall at the end of a sentence, in case it doesn’t, remember "etc." always requires a period at the end.

Et al.

The abbreviation "et al." is Latin for “et alii,” which roughly translates to “and others” in English. It’s used to indicate a list of people is continuing on.

You’re most likely to come across "et al." in an academic reference. If several authors contributed to a text, study or report, consider using et al. if your stylebook allows. For example:

Stern et al. (2016, p. 413).

You might also see "et al." in the name of an accounting or law firm. Sometimes, all the partners can’t be listed in the letterhead. For example:

Davis, Kinsale, Moore, Sullivan, et al.

As you can see, "et al." is used to indicate a continuation of a list of people, while "etc." is used to indicate a list of items. Similar to "etc.," "et al." always requires a period after “al,” no matter where it lands in the sentence.

Abbreviate Accordingly

Fear not, abbreviations can be tricky terrain. Although they’re intended to provide a certain level of ease, we have to make sure we’re spelling them correctly and punctuating where punctuation is due. The pair “i.e.” and “e.g.” are commonly interchanged, too. Here’s more on how to use i.e. and e.g. properly.

Have you ever wondered if there’s a difference between an abbreviation and an acronym? Sure there is! An abbreviation is a shortened form of words used to represent the whole (such as Dr. or Prof.), while an acronym contains a set of initial letters from a phrase that can then be pronounced like its own word (such as radar or scuba). Read on to learn more!