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While writing a rhetorical question I ran into a case where it seemed natural to start a sentence with "I.e":

How do we handle the case when the list is empty? I.e., if the filter matched no entries?

Is that OK in this case? In any case?

Edit: Thanks, everyone. It seems the consensus is that it's legal but not attractive. I like the alternatives presented in the accepted answer and comments. For my part, I will probably be avoiding the construct in the future.

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I'd just suggest writing How do we handle the case when the list is empty (i.e. the filter matched no entries)? – snumpy Jun 16 '11 at 17:51
@snumpy: Agreed. I don't suppose it makes sense to say you can't start a sentence with “i.e.” as if that were some basic rule of grammar. But unless I'm much mistaken you can't do it without unecessarily raising eyebrows. Your alternative is much better. – FumbleFingers Jun 16 '11 at 18:02
@FumbleFingers: Same with "e.g." In theory, sure, you could lead a sentence off with the abbreviation, but the capitalized first letter is aesthetically displeasing. – The Raven Jun 16 '11 at 20:04
I.e. a good question. – JeffSahol Jun 21 '11 at 16:38
up vote 13 down vote accepted

Combo of my and @FumbleFingers' comments, which I believe would constitute an answer:

While one couldn't empirically insist that a sentence cannot begin with i.e., doing so would unnecessarily raise some eyebrows. Might I suggest a couple of alternatives?

  • How do we handle the case when the list is empty (i.e. the filter matched no entries)?
  • How do we handle the case when the list is empty, i.e. the filter matched no entries?
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... or, "How do we handle the case when the list is empty, i.e. the filter matched no entries"? The idea is that the "i.e." is an important but severable part of the idea, instead of its own thought. – KeithS Jun 16 '11 at 18:09
@KeithS: Could I get away with "How do we handle the case when the list is empty - i.e. the filter matched no entries?" I know I'm overly fond of dashes - but we gotta use 'em up somewhere. While I'm at it, since my first sentence was a question within a question, could I have slipped another question mark in there? :) – FumbleFingers Jun 16 '11 at 21:19
+1 For KeithS's suggestion... most of the style guides I've bumped into over the years prefer this form. – scottishwildcat Jun 17 '11 at 19:54
I was under the impression that i.e. should be followed by a comma in most cases. – ErikE Jun 21 '11 at 16:30

My view is that i.e. can usually be replaced with that is to say, so if you are prepared to start a sentence with "That is to say" then "I.e." should be OK too, and if not then not.

I think it is fine.

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+1 for a good rule of thumb, briefly stated. – FumbleFingers Jun 16 '11 at 21:20
It's always less clumsy to use a well-structured english sentence, than to fall back on latin abbreviations. I really think i.e. and e.g. go better in parenthetical remarks, an informal email, or footnotes, than the body of any written article, or essay. – Warren P Jun 17 '11 at 0:54
i.e. is id est which literally means that is. If it can't be replaced with "that is" then it is being used incorrectly. – ErikE Jun 21 '11 at 16:31

I think it's a stylistic question more than a grammatical one. Grammatically speaking, "i.e." isn't even true English, it's short for the Latin phrase "id est" (translation: "that is"). Some would say it's best to avoid non-English terms whenever possible, and it's certainly possible here by simply saying "that is."

Perhaps then the question becomes "Can I begin a sentence with 'That is?'" And again, the grammatical answer is probably yes, but it still seems like sloppy style... at least to me.

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I would suggest that "i.e." is conjunctive, and therefore beginning a sentence with it would be poor style. Certainly it would grate. I'm not sure I could produce a grammatical rule to back this up - it just feels wrong.

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