https://insidegovuk.blog.gov.uk/2016/07/20/changes-to-the-style-guide-no-more-eg-and-ie-etc/

Changes to the style guide: no more eg, and ie, etc

We’ve found that several programs that read webpages for those with visual impairment read ‘eg’ incorrectly, so we’re updating the style guide.

Most people who use these programs are used to their quirks, but it’s jarring to hear the wrong words. And while ‘e.g.’ gets read correctly by screen readers, there are better, clearer ways of introducing examples for all users.

We promote the use of plain English on GOV.UK. We advocate simple, clear language. Terms like eg, ie and etc, while common, make reading difficult for some.

Anyone who didn’t grow up speaking English may not be familiar with them. Even those with high literacy levels can be thrown if they are reading under stress or are in a hurry - like a lot of people are on the web.

So we’re phasing them out. We’ve changed our style guide as follows, and we’re letting content designers across government know.

eg, etc and ie

‘eg’ can sometimes be read aloud as ‘egg’ by screen reading software. Instead use ‘for example’ or ‘such as’ or 'like' or ‘including’ - whichever works best in the specific context.

‘etc’ can usually be avoided. Try using ‘for example’ or ‘such as’ or ‘including’. Never use ‘etc’ at the end of a list starting with ‘for example’ or ‘such as’ or ‘including’.

‘ie’ - used to clarify a sentence - isn’t always well understood. Try (re)writing sentences to avoid the need to use it. If that isn’t possible, use an alternative such as ‘meaning’ or ‘that is’.

We’re not going for a ‘big bang’ approach. You’ll still see these words on GOV.UK for a while - we have over 4,000 uses of ‘eg’ alone. So, at GDS, we’ll stop using these phrases in new content, and when we’re updating existing pages, we’ll replace the eg, etc and ie.

 

Photo by Liz West / CC BY 2.0.

55 comments

  1. Huw Pritchard

    Quite right too. I set my auto-correct to implement these changes in my emails and other content quite a while ago

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  2. Andrew Robertson

    So pleased you're changing this. I've always disliked eg and ie which as you say are often used wrongly. I always think etc means "and there are other things you should know but I can't be bothered telling you". Surprised GDS even started using these abbreviations.

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  3. Susan

    Goodbye, Latin. Your time is up, according to the digital natives. O tempora! O mores. (Look it up.)

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    • John Turnbull

      We haven't said we're getting rid of all Latin terms, just eg, ie and etc - because we can be clearer for all users. You'll find the Daily Telegraph style guide says much the same thing.

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  4. Joanne

    The reason to avoid eg is completely justified, thank you. Would be good to know why to avoid etc and if/how research has informed this.

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    • John Turnbull

      Not based on any specific research, just the realisation that we can usually phrase things more clearly and thereby avoid the risk of someone not understanding what 'etc' means. Also, it often gets used wrongly, tacked on to the end of lists starting with 'like' or 'such as'.

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      • Rod Taylor

        https://www.google.co.uk/webhp?q=site%3Agov.uk%20etc

        3.7 million "etc"s. That's a lot of deckchairs to rearrange. All because of an untested feeling that it could be clearer.

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        • John Turnbull

          We haven't banned 'etc'. Our guidance says:

          "etc can usually be avoided. Try using ‘for example’ or ‘such as’ or ‘like’ or ‘including’. Never use etc at the end of a list starting with these words."

          Other publications provide similar guidance, for example the Daily Telegraph:

          "etc should not have a full point. Despite its use in special contexts such as style books, it should be avoided where possible."

          Your Google search includes any site on the gov.uk domain (of which there are hundreds); our guidance applies to one website: http://www.gov.uk

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  5. Withheld

    Good move. Accessibility for all needs to be excellent not just bordering on acceptable.

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  6. Roberto

    What is the difference between a "program" and "software"?

    You use both terms so I assume they are different.

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    • John Turnbull

      No, they're being used interchangeably here. It would probably have been better to stick to one or the other.

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  7. Tads

    By the way, when you tell time, AM denotes Ante Merideiem and PM denitotes Post Meridiem. As these are LATIN ABBREVIATIONS, I do wonder how you intend to tell time in "plain English", i.e.: y'all have not really thought this one through. And if you have, this is the most zenophobic, backward thinking atrocity ever commited against the English language, as Latin has been in common use since the time the freaking romans colonized all of you.

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    • John Turnbull

      We haven't said we're getting rid of all Latin terms, just eg, ie and etc - because we can be clearer for all users. You'll find the Daily Telegraph style guide says much the same thing.

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    • Coffeepowered

      *xenophobic

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  8. David Boulding

    You are removing "e.g." merely because some badly written American software translates this as "egg"?

    Perhaps if you put the punctuation back in people whould not be confused by "i.e." and "e.g." or tha badly written software either?

    You are destroying our language.

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    • John Turnbull

      Not destroying the language, just making it easier to read for everyone. That's our duty as a government website.

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      • Jeff Eldridge

        Disagree. Your be better off getting the few screen readers changed, than changing LOTS of content.

        Excellent example of fixing the symptom, not the problem.

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        • John Turnbull

          Although our user researchers have noticed *some* screen readers have issues with 'eg', we haven't tested all of them.

          Much easier (and cheaper) to do this ourselves in a phased approach.

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  9. James

    This is stupid. This is the English language. Screen readers will get better. Get over it for the time being.

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    • John Turnbull

      We're improving the site for users of screen readers without making it worse for anyone else. That's got to be good, hasn't it?

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      • Rod Taylor

        It wasn't a very bright idea to try and use "eg" without dots in the first place, was it?

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        • John Turnbull

          Perhaps, though it’s not uncommon: both the BBC and Guardian style guides advise no full stops in ‘eg’. The Economist style guide doesn’t have a separate entry for it, but uses ‘eg’ rather than ‘e.g.’ on its page on abbreviations.

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  10. Howard Culshaw

    Absolutely terrible dumbing down.
    All children should be taught some Latin.
    The answer is to raise the educational bar not to lower it.
    How about using a dictionary? There are online dictionaries so no need even for an old fashioned book God forbid.
    Has nobody within the organisation stood up to this linguistic vandalism?

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    • John Turnbull

      It's a government website. Users shouldn't need to use a dictionary to understand it.

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      • Sue L

        I'm pleased you're doing this and don't think the flak you're getting is justified. We avoid these abbreviations on our local government website too for the same reasons.

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  11. Simon

    Wow, some negative comments on this thread, all for GDS trying to simplify things for the user?! Every little helps and those who don't see it arethe same people who deliver something, such as web content and not look for further possible improvements!

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  12. Gilly Ames

    Hi,
    If you want to improve accessibility, try using the abbreviation tag for abbreviations http://www.w3schools.com/tags/tag_abbr.asp

    This will read out the "title" of the abbreviation, and provide a tool tip when you hover over the word. The example provided uses the abbreviation "WHO" and the title would be "World health organisation".

    This won't help much for the Latin abbreviations (because people who don't understand e.g probably won't understand exempli gratia any better) but if the aim is to improve the screen reader experience, this will help more generally.

    I don't really mind one way or the other about that latin issue, but so think that this is a tone of voice and content issue more than it is a technical one.

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    • John Turnbull

      "this is a tone of voice and content issue more than it is a technical one."

      Agreed. We only cited technical issues in the case of 'eg'. And rather than use technology to make screen reading software read 'eg' as 'for example', we decided to actually write 'for example' (or similar) so that all users hear or see the same thing.

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  13. David

    Thank you for improving the accessibility of the site.

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  14. Norma Beechey

    Not sure why reference needed to be made in any case to those who did not grow up speaking English or was that just to score points because the equal opportunities box has to be ticked before any change is introduced? If English has been learned as a foreign language the standard of literacy is probably higher than that of many whose heritage tongue is English. (I suspect a number of people who have grown up in the UK have not received the same level of education in English grammar and literacy as, say, thirty years ago when these expressions and how to use them would have been taught as the norm.) Also not sure what evidence you have that 'ie' is not well understood but perhaps that's because it should be i.e. Also, et cetera does not mean 'for example' - that's e.g. - and by its very translation does not mean 'including'! What does irritate me is when civil servants who should be the guardians of literacy cannot write (or probably use) them properly e.g. i.e. The dumbing down continues but using the excuse of those who do not have English as a first language will be like a red rag to a bull to many in the current climate and adds little weight to what I guess is the more substantive reason for the change i.e. opps sorry, meaning, users with visual impairments. Really pleased that the Daily Telegraph style guide says much the same thing - I am sure that reassures us all.

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    • John Turnbull

      As the main government website, GOV.UK has to be as clear as possible for all citizens of the UK, regardless of ability or disability, or of educational attainment. We also have content that is read by people outside the UK, whose first language may not be English (information on applying for a UK visa, for example).

      We know ‘ie’ (or ‘i.e.’) is not well understood by everyone because we see it misused regularly.

      ‘Etc’ does not mean ‘for example’, but many (perhaps most) lists can be written to start with ‘for example’ or ‘such as’ rather then to end with ‘etc’. Note that we haven’t banned ‘etc’; we are simply advising that it can usually be avoided.

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  15. John Richards

    I am also concerned that Persis (abbreviation for persistent?) Howe incorrectly uses the word 'like', when she says "...like a lot of people are on the web." she should have used the word 'as'.

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    • John Turnbull

      One of the many dictionary definitions of ‘like’ is: “In the same way that; as.”

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    • Concerned

      I'm also concerned that John thinks it's ok to make a cheap joke about someone's name.

      A little respect, please.

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  16. Simon Merren

    Why not just adopt a style where these abbreviations are written complete with full stops (e.g., i,e. etc. or even &c.)? I have always understood that, in the case of etc,, a list should always be written out in full in the first instance, but any subsequent repetition may be achieved by repeating the first two items followed by the abbreviation (et = and and cetera = the rest, plural)

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    • John Turnbull

      For ‘eg’ we decided it would be better to write ‘such as’ or ‘for example’ because then sighted users would read the same words as are read out by the screen reading software used by people with visual impairments.

      Regarding ‘etc’, we rarely, if ever, repeat a list on the same page of GOV.UK. And we haven’t banned the use of it - our guidance says:

      "etc can usually be avoided. Try using ‘for example’ or ‘such as’ or ‘like’ or ‘including’. Never use etc at the end of a list starting with these words."

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      • Adam Banks

        Clearly, there's no excuse for any program to read "eg" incorrectly. The only way to read that in English is as "e.g." As you say, there are "several" makers of screen readers – not hundreds or thousands. You could very usefully have contacted them all, in your capacity as a respected pioneer of best practice, and let them know you'd discovered this flaw. (Perhaps you did?)

        The idea that this should affect your style choices seems fundamentally wrong. If we start changing our language to get around easily rectifiable bugs in software that's specifically written to handle that language, we'll end up talking machine code.

        You're quite right that most style guides deprecate ie, eg and etc as weak, lazy and to many people ambiguous. Why not just say that? We might get the impression that reasoning about language from academic knowledge and precedent is not as welcome within GDS as spuriously ticking accessibility boxes.

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        • John Turnbull

          Some screen reading software reads 'e.g.' as "e dot g dot". Some reads 'eg' as "egg". Rather than find and contact all manufacturers, we've taken the (no cost) decision to phase out 'eg' in favour of 'for example' or similar. That way all users, whether sighted or visually impaired, read and hear the same thing.

          And it's not just about screen readers. The new guidance will improve the experience of GOV.UK for a significant number of people without degrading it for anyone else.

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  17. jonathan

    An excellent decision that will lead to greater clarity for everyone, not just those dependent on screen readers.

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  18. Joanne

    Well argued John, and a good, justified shift in the style guide.

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    • N J Robson

      John Turnbull, I have to admire the calmness of your replies amidst all this flak!

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  19. Sam

    A very sensible set of style suggestions which I'm going to try and use myself.

    Thanks!

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  20. Ragina Filange

    I think the most important piece that everyone is forgetting is that the change is to ensure everyone is included and not left out or feeling confused when reading. Accesiblity generally helps all in the end. Take for example accessble door buttons - when you had an armful of groceries in the 80's or 90's you had to rely on some really nice person to hold the door while you stumbled through. Now, we all push the button on the wall and the door magically opens, and stays open for us to pass. We should want to help one another, not disclude people. This isn't a jab at the English language, this is an attempt to include those who unfortunately have impairments such as low vision or no vision. We all take what we have for granted. Consider losing one of your senses, how would you manage?

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  21. Tony Ben

    Your have decided to change the style guide and, as a consequence, thousands of web pages, documents and whatever else, based not on research, but that you feel it will be clearer.
    Have you taken any time to work out the cost that this change will incur?
    It must be wonderful to work in an environment where cost is not an issue and you can spend so much time and money, not only in your department, but as a consequence throughout other unrelated departments in government.
    The worst thing is you see this as a good use of tax payers money.
    In the real world, any change must be costed, including consequent changes incurred by third parties - is this something that was done with this change?

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    • John Turnbull

      There is virtually no cost. The blog post says: "we’ll stop using these phrases in new content, and when we’re updating existing pages, we’ll replace the eg, etc and ie." That's a few minutes of extra work per week.

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  22. Nick Mercer

    Why program and not programme? Plain English or Plain American English?? Let's not capitulate entirely!

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  23. Craig Morrison

    It's good to see this in the GOV.UK style guide, we've been preferring "For example:" on the student finance service for a while now for a number of reasons. It fit our design patterns well because it's most often used after form questions.

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  24. Anne Fernie

    Pedicabo eam! So It is OK to dumb down and ban e.g. etc. but OK to use idiomatic terminology such as 'big bang' approach which I am sure will have English as 2nd language readers scratching their heads.

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    • Keith Emmerson

      Hi Anne,

      There is a slight discrepancy there, and we should avoid the use of idioms, phrases and metaphors. That said, on this blog we soften our approach to colloquialisms a little bit, and try to maintain the tone and voice of the author.

      Thanks for your comment,
      Keith

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  25. Marjorie

    Many people confuse e.g. and i.e., both the people who write the content and the people who read it. On occasions, the confusion can cause problems as the first is giving an example of the type of thing you are referring to, and the second is a clarification of the exact thing you are referring to.

    As a technical author, every style guide I have worked to has banned these terms in favour of "for example" and "that is", for precisely that reason. And when I have come across them while proof-reading content from engineers and the like (all highly intelligent people), they have often been used incorrectly. Then imagine how a non-native English speaker will cope.

    Getting rid of these is not dumbing down - it's using plain English to ensure clear and understandable communication. Isn't that what we ll want?

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