I find myself wanting to use the phrase "that is" or "that's to say" but often can't figure out what sort of punctuation I use with it. I think it's an explanatory phrase, but I'm not sure.

I mean, it happens all the time, that is, birds eating and ants crawling about, but I felt connected to those beings if for just a moment.

Another alternative that doesn't feel right to me at all:

I mean, it happens all the time. That is, birds eating and ants crawling about, but I felt connected to those beings if for just a moment.

Likewise, I think I might be able to justify an em dash, but I'm always nervous about using them for lack of proper understanding.

I mean, it happens all the time–that is, birds eating and ants crawling about–but I felt connected to those beings if for just a moment.

Can someone provide a good example of how to use that phrase?

  • 2
    Your version with the em dashes seems just right, except that all three examples would make a lot more sense without the not, so that the final condition would read "if just for a moment" or "if only for a moment." Commented Jul 11, 2014 at 11:46
  • @BrianDonovan Thanks for pointing that out! I totally agree that it sounds better without the "not".
    – vmrob
    Commented Jul 11, 2014 at 11:53

3 Answers 3


That is or i.e. is used for clarifying a statement. Think of it as "in essence" or "in other words".

Use that is when you want to explain what you just said in a different way.A definition, metaphor, or a clarification can follow.

You may want to check examples here (Read the part that explains i.e)

I am including a few examples here:

  1. The elephant is a pachyderm, i.e., an animal with thick skin and nails resembling hooves.

  2. I went to my least favorite place (i.e., the dentist).


I would punctuate "that is" as you would "for example" in an extended example. "A writer might punctuate 'that is' in a number of ways; for example, one might set off the phrase that begins 'that is' with em dashes."

I actually came here looking for the answer to the very same question, so I appreciate the responses. Do note that while one can use "i.e." in parentheses, one should NEVER use "i.e.," "e.g.," or "etc." outside of parentheses.


“that is” is a phrase that means “for example,” and comes from the Latin, “id est.” It is not the same as “that’s,” nor can it be conjugated like a verb, so it has no past tense. Therefore, to render it as “that was” is incorrect. It is set off by commas, making it an appositive, which isn’t a verb at all, but “a word or group of words placed next to a noun or pronoun in order to identify, rename or explain it. An appositive can be a noun, a pronoun or a phrase or clause acting as a noun.”

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