The School Doctor: Goodbye eg, ie, etc?

Earlier in the week we reported about the Government website removing latin abbreviations. Following on from this the School Doctor gives us his view on this change.

The Government Digital Service has decided to remove Latin abbreviations from government websites, ostensibly to make those websites easier to understand, especially to those who may not have been brought up learning the meaning of ‘eg’, ‘ie’ or ‘etc’. As with many of these kinds of initiatives, the backlash has been vocal and rapid. E.g. Harry Mount in The Telegraph senses the barbarians at the gates, because some ‘Whitehall ignoramus’ (his words) has decided that the abbreviations should be removed.

Mount’s arguments are: that it is patronising to non-English speakers to suggest they can’t learn simple abbreviations; that alternatives to the abbreviations are dull; the abbreviations have been absorbed into the English language anyway; and the abbreviations’ removal smacks of anti-Latin anti-elitism etc. Mount asks: what’s next? The removal from the English language of ‘am’, ‘pm’, ‘c’, ‘ibid’, ‘cf’, ‘ad lib’, ‘CV’ and ‘AD’?

Well, no, aside from the fact that very few people, or professions, outside academia use ‘ibid’ or ‘cf’ anyway. I’m supportive of the move, but not necessarily for the reasons the Government Digital Service is advertising. I don’t think anyone is undermining Latin as a fundamental basis of the English language; initiatives to get more children learning Latin in schools will hardly be affected by a few changes to a government website. Minimus the mouse will not be exterminated because a few webpages don’t say ‘etc’ anymore (though, as an aside, I’m amused to see that Minimus’s website is I’d be more worried about the danger posed by the shrinking of the curriculum to create more space for constant past SATs papers.

Rather, the removal of the abbreviations should be welcomed because their replacement with full words or phrases might increase the elegance of the writing and, hopefully, increase the level of detail on offer. I don’t get Mount’s point that ‘such as’ is more dull than ‘eg’, or ‘that is’ more tedious than ‘ie’. Few of the world’s greatest writers or orators have peppered their texts with such abbreviations. Anything that helps the flow of the sentence should be encouraged; maybe people will be more inclined to replicate that flow if they see it on government websites.

The issue of ‘etc’ is a little more complex. I was banned at school from writing ‘etc’ because it usually meant: ‘I’m writing a list of things I think would back up my point, but I either haven’t got a long list, so I wouldn’t be that convincing, or I can’t be bothered to write them all down, so work it out for yourself’. Now, when I’m marking, whenever I see ‘etc’ I read ‘pfff, I dunno, there are probably some other examples I could put down here but, shrug, you’ll probably know what I mean’. In short, by removing the ‘etc’, we encourage our pupils to explain what they mean at greater length, and to give us all the relevant examples to back up their arguments. If they haven’t got many examples, their argument may be less convincing. Adding ‘etc’ does not magically answer the question. ‘And so on’ is marginally better, but it is too often used as a cop-out instead of telling us what we actually need to know.

The reality is that the English language (with its Latin heritage) will barely change, if at all. So people can stop shaking their Telegraphs in anger, spitting out ‘thin end of the wedge’ arguments. We will still use ‘am’ or ‘pm’; we will still write ‘CV’s. People learning English will still be able to increase their vocabulary, as Mount desires, by engaging with Latin abbreviations in every other walk of life, whenever they should appear. I’m not sure many people were using government websites in the same way they would use Duolingo anyway. Using ‘such as’ or ‘that is’ will not bring the heritage of the classical world crumbling down; they may, rather, increase the naturalistic flow of people’s writing. The removal of ‘etc’, so long as it is replaced with detailed replacement information, should be celebrated. QED?

How do you feel about removing Latin abbreviations? Is it too much for English learners or is it a part of our history that needs to be preserved? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter. ~ Sophie

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