I'm writing one of my first academic papers and I'm not sure whether etc. is too informal. Should I use et cetera instead?

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    I think Writers.SE might be able to help you more with this question, since it's more about style than usage. – Mark Beadles Apr 29 '12 at 14:33
  • Go with et cetera when it is not sentence-ending, to avoid the ugly period after etc. – Kaz Apr 29 '12 at 15:16
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    @Kat: only the most pretentious and unedited academic writers would use the full spelling of these abbreviations. Sorry, I mean to say that -no one- uses the full spelling. – Mitch Apr 29 '12 at 16:57
  • @Mitch: My supervisor tells me that "etc." is too informal for scientific writing. Funny thing though, when I searched the 'web for scientific style guides, all three that I found used it profusely, without mentioning guidelines for its use. :D – naught101 May 2 '12 at 7:11
  • @naught101: I agree that 'etc.' is too informal. My point was to Kaz that one should definitely not spell it out as 'et cetera' – Mitch May 2 '12 at 11:36

etc. is not informal. In fact it is better than its expansion, which sounds rather awkward. It is perfectly ok to use etc. in an academic paper.

Just note, however, that both of them are very sparingly and carefully used in serious writing. Try to list fully or describe the list instead.

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    For better advice, migrate the Q. to writersSE and see. – Kris Apr 29 '12 at 14:29
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    What do you mean that et cetera sounds awkward compared to etc? Are you referring to the "ee tee cee" pronuncation? Otherwise, they do not make a different sound. – Kaz Apr 29 '12 at 15:11
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    Right, it sounds the same, but it looks awkward. – naught101 May 2 '12 at 7:13

I would recommend not using etc. in an academic paper. And if you do, please be sure you are using it correctly. See this good explanation about using etc. Here's an excerpt:

It isn’t that writing that contains et al. or etc. is bad writing, it’s just that it is completely possible to construct meaningful sentences without using them. In fact, in most cases, it is probably preferable not to use them since both are badly overused, and technically speaking, they have definite meanings and specific usages that often do not apply in the cases they are used. More specifically, etc. is NOT to be used to complete a clause that starts with such as or for example.

To use etcetera in a sentence is to imply that the the reader already knows the rest of the set it is referring to, not, as it is so often used, as a placeholder for an undefined set. (Note that etc. is fine to use when referring to an infinite set, which is, by definition, a known set.)

As an editor, I would almost always ask for a revision of a sentence that contains etc. It usually can be reworded more precisely and better without using this word. And quite honestly, many authors use it incorrectly.

  • AP style is for media writing, not academic writing. I like the point about not using it with e.g., but I'm not sure that I could find a rational argument to support it. You could have a sentence "for example, apples, oranges, bananas and so on", couldn't you? Why is that bad, other than sounding a little awkward? Also, "an infinite set" is certainly not always a known set. – naught101 May 2 '12 at 7:18
  • We use AP style in our clinical journal (or at least our style guide is based on it). I think saying "for example,...and so on" is redundant. What follows are examples, not intended to be a complete list. I'm not sure about the "infinite set." That point was made in the excerpt, wasn't mine. – JLG May 2 '12 at 15:35

I think the problem is not the phrase itself, but the fact that it assumes the reader will know what "the rest" is. As a rule, in academic papers, this is a difficult assumption to make, because the nature of an academic paper is to define and spell out information.

So if it is appropriate to include this at all, then the expression "etc." is fine - it is not the formality that is the issue, but the implications.

  • Nice argument. What about when it doesn't matter if the audience knows the rest of the set? – naught101 May 2 '12 at 7:19
  • +1. This is the reason it is better to expand fully or describe the list. – Kris May 2 '12 at 7:36
  • @naught101 - I have been trying to think of a case where this would be appropriate. Given that it is an academic paper, the list should normally be expanded or have a group title ( "or any other 2D shapes" ). etc. always leaves some ambiguity, which is rarely appropriate for such a medium. FWIW, I am currently writing a PhD thesis, and have not found a place for etc anywhere in it. – Schroedingers Cat May 2 '12 at 8:07
  • I have one: the list of components in a climate model: "cloud formation processes, soil water run-off, sea-ice model, etc." There is potentially no end to the list, but it doesn't matter to the reader. The list is just to give the reader an idea of what kind of processes we're talking about. I guess I could use "for example ...", but I don't see why that's any better. – naught101 May 3 '12 at 1:15

Garner in Garner's Modern American Usage has a good entry on this. He says:

Writers should generally try to be as specific as possible rather than make use of this term. Still, it would be foolish to prohibit etc. outright because often one simply cannot practicably list all that should be listed in a given context. Hence, rather than convey to the reader that a list is seemingly complete when it is not, the writer might justifiably use etc. (always the abbreviation). In text, a substitute such as and others is usually a better choice.

The term etc. should be reserved for things, not for people.

  • I'm not sure whether to fix misspelled simply or flag for unattributed quote from Garner's Modern American Usage; got any thoughts? – James Waldby - jwpat7 Apr 29 '12 at 15:31
  • Try to search Garner's Modern American Usage on Google Books; or try with this link (books.google.com/…) that function from Italy, but I do not think that function from others countries. – user19148 Apr 29 '12 at 15:39
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    A google search provides six links all more relevant than that in your comment, which shows "New Yorker" references in Garner. But the link is not the important issue. The important issue is that you should attribute the quotation, instead of displaying it like original writing. – James Waldby - jwpat7 Apr 29 '12 at 15:48
  • @jwpat7 - Done. – user19148 Apr 29 '12 at 15:54
  • @jwpat7 - Pardon! - The preceding link was referred to this answer english.stackexchange.com/questions/66126/… – user19148 Apr 29 '12 at 17:51

I'm using 'et cetera' it seems more formal and my teachers taught me not to abbreviate on test and important documents.

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    Hello, Lexi. Do what your teachers say until you're no longer under their authority. But then you can explore the facts for yourself. One university style guide I've come across requires that etc, et al etc should not be used at all. But others differ. Any 'rules' about this are local style preferences rather than binding requirements common to the English language. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 10 '18 at 22:20

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