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I just read an article from a Chinese website for English teaching which mentions that point. For instance, one can't say:

"I can play quite a few musical instruments, for example, the flute, the guitar, the piano, etc.".

The correct one should be:

"I can play quite a few musical instruments, for example, the flute, the guitar, and the piano."

Is it possible to find any references to prove that?

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It makes sense that it might be something to avoid, because the 'etc' is redundant. –  Mitch Dec 25 '11 at 1:48
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Mitch is right. That means it says something again, when it's not needed. English doesn't do that as much as Chinese does. For example says that you are going to give one or more examples -- not all of them -- and etc. says that there are more examples, which is clear already. –  John Lawler Dec 25 '11 at 1:53
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Since the question is tagged with grammar and the like, I thought to mention that the sentence does not have its problems in grammar, but — as indicated by the other answers — rather in semantics. –  Daniel Dinnyes Jan 2 '12 at 11:50

8 Answers 8

up vote 22 down vote accepted
+50

Apart from being redundant, as Mitch said in the comment, I don't think etc. fits very well in that example. There is a nuance to the use of etc. that Wikipedia sums up:

The phrase et cetera is often used to delete the logical continuation of some sort of series of descriptions

"Logical continuation" is the key here. Consider these two sentences:

A balanced diet should include fruits: apples, oranges, etc.

The fruit basket contained some of Bob's favorite fruits, for example, apples, oranges, etc.

In the first example, you can logically continue the list of examples by substituting any type of fruit. But in the second, you can't. You have no way to know what other types of fruits Bob likes to eat, nor what was in the fruit basket.

I don't think it's necessarily wrong to use it in that way, but it does feel very awkward to me.

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+1 interesting observation. –  onomatomaniak Dec 29 '11 at 6:12
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I'm really not clear what Wikipedia means by delete there. My first thought was denote, but that's probably not right. Maybe replace? –  TimLymington Dec 29 '11 at 12:35
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I believe that they meant you delete the last part of the sentence and replace it with etc. But since I was quoting it directly, I didn't want to change their wording. Maybe we could put a (sic) on it? –  lindanaughton Dec 29 '11 at 15:33
    
Agree completely. I think etc. is normally unsuitable in contexts where the reader can't reasonably be expected to mentally append a few more items to the list. The main exception to that being where the writer knows that perfectly well, and is just supercilliously showing off the fact that he knows of more items that he's not going to bother listing. –  FumbleFingers Jan 1 '12 at 15:57

The problem here is that the sentence was written by a Chinese speaker, and in Chinese, lists of words following the Chinese equivalents of "for example", "including" or "such as" are usually terminated with the word 等. This terminator is used with both complete and incomplete lists. Unfortunately, the Chinese are taught that this word translates into English as "etc."

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The point of this guideline is that "for example (the following)" wants to name a few specific items of a set of equal instances, whereas "et cetera", which literally means "and others (which I am unwilling to name here and now)" wants to avoid being specific beyond what you have already mentioned.

So the contradiction when using both lies in the indirect expression of your intention as a writer: you are trying to be specific and unspecific at the same time - and that doesn't increase your credibility.

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I disagree with other answers claiming or implying that "etc." should never be used to end a list that was introduced by "for example". It's a good rule of thumb, but not inviolate.

For example, on this recent question about swear-words, there's an answer which only concerns itself with profanities derived from the domain of religion. I might reasonably have made a comment such as...

What we call "bad language" doesn't only derive from religion. Consider, for example, shithead, asshole, pissed off, etc.

In writing that, I'd be perfectly well aware that I'm specifying a single alternative domain (bodily excretion), and giving examples thereof. I'd expect an alert reader to realise there are other domains (sex, obviously) from which we generate the expressions we call "bad language".

Per my comment to @Lynn's excellent answer, regardless of "for example", I agree "etc." is often "questionable" in contexts where the reader can't reasonably be expected to mentally append a few more items to the list (unless the writer is deliberately being slightly dismissive of his reader).

Having said all that, I would not endorse "etc." in OP's sentence for the same reason others give. "For example" implies that only a selection of possible items will be listed - but unlike my own example, "etc." in OP's case seems to stand in for all those same possible items.

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Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, p. 412, notes:

A few commentators warn that etc. should not be used at the end of a list introduced by for example or such as (as in “...such photographic materials as lenses, filters, etc.”) The redundancy of etc. in such contexts is not strongly felt, however, and the usage considered erroneous by the commentators does occur in standard writing.

Merriam-Webster's position is that since this usage occurs in standard (meaning professionally produced and professionally edited) writing, they have no objections.

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It's really just simple logic. You can only use "etc" when a list is incomplete.

"I can play quite a few musical instruments, for example, the flute, the guitar, the piano, etc."

The list at the end of this sentence is not a list of instruments you can play, but it is a list of examples of instruments you can play. There are no examples not included on the list. So the "etc" has nothing to refer to.

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There are two problems with this particular usage. Neither is enough to make it wrong, but I definitely think that the combination is enough to say "Avoid it".

First "etc." does not mean 'and so on'. It means 'and all the rest of them'. So "I know the punctuation marks; colon, comma, etc." , but not ?"I know lots of languages: French, Latin. etc." (unless you know all the languages there are). The distinction is often ignored, but still real.

Second, it clashes with "for example." Technically, it contradicts it; but even if you substituted 'and so on', the phrase is redundant.

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Although Latin et cetera means "and the others", or "and all the rest..." as you have it, etc. is being used today also with meaning "and so forth" –  jwpat7 Dec 29 '11 at 6:49
    
@jwpat: you mean 'the distinction is often ignored'? –  TimLymington Dec 29 '11 at 9:52

Here is a reference. In their The Elements of Style, Strunk and White discourage the use of "etc." at the end of such lists.

Update: Another reference is A Handbook for Scholars (2nd edition) by Mary-Claire Van Leunen. On page 130 she writes: "For example" gives notice that only some members of a set are to be mentioned; "etc." then drags in all the other members. The two expressions are at loggerheads.

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Strunk and White. Aaaaargh! –  Barrie England Dec 25 '11 at 8:27
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@Barrie: unreliable is not 'always wrong' –  TimLymington Dec 25 '11 at 15:28
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@TimLymington: Strunk and White isn't even unreliable; it's quite reliable as an indicator of the kind of writing Messrs. Strunk and White liked to see. :-) –  ShreevatsaR Dec 25 '11 at 16:16
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This definitely answers the question ... Strunk and White is a reference that discourages it. I don't think it's ungrammatical (if that's what the OP was asking), but I do agree that it's not good style. –  Peter Shor Dec 25 '11 at 16:57
    
Agreed, there are any number of official substitutes for common sense. [see also: comments at OP] –  Kris Dec 27 '11 at 12:49

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