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I have a bunch of information from a source, but the authors names are particularly long; is it acceptable (in MLA) to use "et al." for exactly two authors, e.g.,

“The Corpus juris not only preserved Roman law for later generations but, after the twelfth century when it came to be known and studied in western Europe, provided inspiration for most European legal systems.” (Lehman et al. 4)

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I would tag this with "mla" but i can't create tags yet... –  bcc32 May 2 '11 at 0:29
    
I don't think it's okay, at least I've never seen it that way and my naive translation is "and others" assumes plural. It will be interesting to see what the experts say. –  Carl Brannen May 2 '11 at 0:33
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This isn't really an English question, it's a publishing question, and probably varies by field. It might be better suited for writers.SE... –  Kosmonaut May 2 '11 at 0:37
    
@Kosmonaut: I see your point and don't disagree but feel this is a great border case. I think directly asking about MLA is off-topic but asking about the usage of et al is on-topic? –  MrHen May 2 '11 at 15:04
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@Kosmo, I'm with MrHen and think that this is on-topic. –  JSBձոգչ May 2 '11 at 17:47

3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Per MLA, "et al" is OK for "three or more authors," so if there's just two, list 'em. (http://www.aresearchguide.com/9parenth.html)

In references, the standard rule is to list up to five authors in the following format:

Smith J, Canton EM. Weight-based administration of dalteparin in obese patients. Am J Health-Syst Pharm. 2003;60(7):683-687.

When you have 6 authors or more, then you truncate the list to the first three, and add "et al." Looks like this:

Hunter DJ, Hankinson SE Jr, Laden F, et al. Plasma organochlorine levels and the risk of breast cancer. N Engl J Med. 1997;337(18):1253-1258.

The Latinate abbreviation "et al." is short for "et alii," which means, "and others," and always refers to people, not objects. So if you had two authors, adding "et al." would indicate that there were other authors - and since there are no other authors in this case, it is incorrect to use it.

Note the standard reference style is to list last name and first name initial only (sometimes second initial). If you have long names, this style generally keeps the matter under control. The most important, overarching principle in reference citations is to present them in a form that will always pull up the paper in a Google search.

The most-common form to do that is what is shown above. Any attempt to be cute, or apply some kind of personal logic to the reference citation will not serve the reader because Elsevier publishing, PubMed, the Library of Medicine, and similar will generally list papers as shown. The critical point is to lead the reader to the exact paper cited.

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I’m not sure the etymological argument holds up here here, since the equivalent Latin singular would be (if I remember right) et alia, which could reasonably be covered by et al. But the main thing, as you say, is the convention, which is to only use et al. for significantly long lists of authors. –  PLL May 2 '11 at 8:00
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@PLL: I think the singular would be alius, but your point still stands :) @The Raven: Your answer appears to be talking about how to format the questions in the bibliography, but the question is about how to format a reference to the bibliography from within the text. Do you really suggest people should write in their text It has recently been shown that water freezes when it gets cold (Montgomery A, Postlethwaite Q, Cholmondeley R, Trevithick J, Winterbottom N 2011) rather than something like (Montgomery et al. 2011) (or something similarly short, depending on the style guide used)? ;-) –  psmears May 2 '11 at 9:09
    
Oh, I'd better edit. –  The Raven May 2 '11 at 10:59
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Somewhere out there is a "Dr A. L. Et" who has either the world's best citation score or whose work is totally ignored by the community –  mgb May 2 '11 at 15:08

It's not accepted in the Harvard referencing system, et al. can only be used from 3 authors onward. The length of the names are not taken into account. I also think it is a bit rude for the 2nd author who is refered as "et al."

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May be this is a little bit cynical but the way you use 'et al' in today's scientific paper publishing is as follows:

A lab publishes a paper in a scientific review and the all team members of the lab get to be listed in the authors section.
Now because this sometimes amounts to many names, when the paper is referenced in later studies bibliography, only the first name - usually the lab top brass - is mentioned and all the others are represented as 'et al.'.

As a result, if the second name in your reference is really secondary you can use 'et al' otherwise it might be perceived as rude/unfair.

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