One of the most used words around is et cetera. Some people substitute et al for etc. Google says that both of them have the same meaning: 'and the others'. Is there a particular context and usage for each of these? Are there any situations wherein one should employ et al. over etc. or vice versa?


I would say there is a definite distinction between the two, in definition and in proper usage. Et cetera, often shortened to etc., means literally 'and the rest'. Et alii, often shortened to et al., means 'and others' and can be thought of as a specific case of et cetera when the 'rest' refers to a list of persons. It is often seen in academic contexts, usually when citing a reference having more than two or three authors.

I have seen improper usage of et cetera described as instances where what is intended to be the 'rest' is unclear or ambiguous, for example:

When visiting your accountant, please bring your receipts, cash book, bank statements, etc.

This would lead to confusion as to what the 'etc' represents. What other papers would we need to take to the accountant?

A more correct usage may be:

The mini bar is stocked with a wide range of spirits: vodka, gin, tequila, etc.

In this case there is no confusion as to the intended meaning of the sentence: the mini bar is stocked with a variety of alcohol.

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    Why do you say that the first sentence is incorrect usage? Whether "etc" is interpreted as ambiguous or unambiguous depends on the context isn't it? We could argue that the second sentence is equally ambiguous to someone without knowledge of alcohol. – Pacerier Jul 8 '14 at 8:49
  • @Pacerier The cases are quite different: the second one says "a wide range of spirits"; the sentence could end there, but gives some examples ... "etc." represents the rest of the spirits, those that weren't explicitly enumerated. The first sentence does not name a class of documents and then gives explicit examples; rather, it names some types of documents, and then "etc." representing the rest, but the rest of what? And unlike the second sentence, the first sentence is an instruction, but fails to instruct. Imagine assembly instructions: "You'll need a flat head screwdriver, etc." – Jim Balter Apr 28 at 23:41

It's the context of those other things that makes the difference here. Et cetera means "and the rest" and et al. means "and the others". Specifically, et al. stands for either et alii, et aliae or et alia when referring to masculine, feminine or gender neutral groups respectively.

Et al. should be used when referring to groups of people, not things. You'll commonly see it when authors are cited in academic works.

Also interesting is that et al. can also be an abbreviation of et alibi, which means all the other places, although this variant is apparently less common.

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  • @MehperC.Palavuzlar, in Latin, when a group of males and females is combined, the neutral plural form is not used, but rather the masculine is. – Adam Mosheh May 16 '12 at 16:15
  • @Andy, Per your answer, why do we need "et al" at all? Why not simply use "etc" for everything? What's the value of using "et al" in place of "etc"? – Pacerier Jul 8 '14 at 8:50
  • @AdamMosheh Then why do we always say 'et cetera' (neutral plural)? If what you say is true, we should say 'et ceteri' (masculine plural). – Zenadix Jun 2 '15 at 20:20
  • @Pacerier Your question isn't relevant and is misdirected. Andy didn't assert that we "need" this or any other distinction or that such distinctions have "value", he simply explained when to use the different terms. Why are there synonyms? Why is there more than one language? What's the value of such things? There are places to discuss these confused questions, but not here. Anyway, Malvolio's answer points out an important difference. – Jim Balter Apr 29 at 22:55

Typically, etc. refers to things and et al. to people but I don't think that's the key distinction.

Etc. means "others of the same sort". Et al. means "other from the same group" or "others forming some group". So "mice, rats, etc." but "Snooki, Sitch, et al."

The reader should always be able to fill in more (plausible if not necessarily correct) examples with "etc." so "mice, rats, voles, gophers..." (on the assumption that the "sort" being enumerated is rodents), whereas my et al. example refers to a fixed set (fluorescent orange cast members of a particular TV show) where there are other members but I can't name them.

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