How to teach Latin abbreviations
Summary: How to present and practise English abbreviations that come from Latin such as "e.g.", "i.e." and "PS"
The most useful abbreviations for students to learn are often not abbreviations of English words but instead ones like “e.g.” and “etc” that come from Latin words and phrases. Teaching such phrases can help student avoid mistakes like using “ex.” for “for example” and using strange punctuation to make important information stand out when they could simply write “NB”. It can also be a good opportunity to teach some useful equivalent English phrases, such as “for example” for “e.g.” and “Please note that” for “NB”.
What students need to know about Latin abbreviations
Things you could mention when teaching Latin abbreviations include:
- What the abbreviations stand for in Latin and if that longer version is also used in English (like “circa” for “ca.”) or not (like “post scriptum” for “PS”)
- Similar words in English and/ or other languages that the students might know (e.g. that “bene” means “good”/ “well” in “benefit”, as well as in the longer form of “NB”)
- A direct translation of the full Latin expression (e.g. “which was to be proved” for “QED”)
- What the abbreviations mean/ How to say the same thing in an English expression (e.g. “and so on” for “etc”)
- If they are also spoken forms (like “e.g.”) or only written ones (like “op. cit.”)
- How the short and long forms are pronounced (perhaps including variations such as the more Latinate pronunciation of “curriculum vitae” and its more Anglicized pron)
- Punctuation/ Formatting (including acceptable variations like “am”, “AM” and “a.m.”, and how to decide which to use when there are different possibilities)
- Any differences in formality between the Latin abbreviations and similar English expressions (e.g. that “PS” is, typically for Latin abbreviations, not as casual as the English abbreviation “btw”)
- Other information about what contexts the abbreviations are and aren’t used in (e.g. if they sound pretentious when used outside academic contexts, like “QED” does)
- Plurals (e.g. “pp” as the plural of “p”)
- What (most/ educated) English speakers know and don’t know about those Latin abbreviations
- Common confusions between different abbreviations and expressions (for example, the difference between “e.g.” and “i.e.” and between “op. cit.” and “ibid.”)
- Other common errors (e.g. using both “e.g.” and “etc” in sentences like “We brought lots of fruit, e.g. apples and bananas, etc” X)
I wouldn’t bother trying to teach any rules on how to use capital letters and punctuation in Latin abbreviations. Rather I just ask students to memorise them one by one and refer to a dictionary or style guide when they aren’t sure. Even when you’ve removed that point to teach, the list above is far too much information for most students and for most Latin abbreviations, so you’ll need to carefully choose what information to present. In particular, you’ll need to decide what to do about the longer Latin expressions, with the main alternatives being:
Just using the closest English phrase (e.g. “that is to say”/ “in other words” for “i.e.”), without mentioning what the longer Latin phrase is
Giving the full Latin phrase and its word for word translation (e.g. both “post meridiem” and “after midday” for “pm”)
Briefly mentioning the longer Latin phrase and quickly moving on, probably without even writing the longer phrase down (for example, briefly mentioning the modern French and Spanish words for “pounds” when teaching “lb”, to make it more memorable and/ or to show that English does make some logical sense, but not writing up the full Latin word)
Latin abbreviations which are most worth teaching
This is a list of the Latin abbreviations which I’d be most likely to teach or at least mention to my students, with the just information which I would probably present (less important and confusing information being left out):
- e.g. – Meaning “for example”/ “for instance”, “ex.” for “for example” not being a correct English abbreviation (although “ex.1” for “example 1” is fine). Also spoken.
- etc. – Meaning “and so on”/ “and so forth”, with the longer Latin word “etcetera” also sometimes used in speech (the abbreviation “etc” rarely being spoken). The “et” part means “and”, which is why “and etc” is wrong.
- i.e. – Meaning “in other words”/ “that is to say”/ “to explain that another way”. Also spoken.
- N.B. – Meaning “Please note that”, from “nota bene” meaning “note well” (“bene” for “good” also being used in words like “beneficial”). Rarely spoken.
- CV – Meaning “résumé”, from “curriculum vitae”, meaning something like “list of your life”. Also spoken (the longer expression having different possible pronunciations but anyway being rarely spoken).
- AM/ a.m. – Meaning “in the morning”, but usually used in simpler expressions, e.g. “two a.m.” vs. “two o’clock in the morning” or “five thirty a.m.” vs. “half past five in the morning” (“half past five a.m.” sounding strange).
- PM/ p.m. – Meaning “in the afternoon”/ “in the evening” (from “post meridiem” for “after midday”, with “post” having the usual meaning of “after”).
- no. – Meaning “number” (like “numero” in modern Spanish), as in “no. 1” for “number one”. Only written.
- lb – “pound” (like the word for that weight in modern French and Spanish). Only written (unlike English abbreviations for units like “cm” and “kph” which can also be spoken).
- PA/ p.a. – From “per annum”, meaning “per year/ every year”, most often used to talk about salaries. The abbreviation is only written, but the longer Latin phrase is sometimes spoken.
- p.p. – Meaning “on behalf of”, most often used at the bottom of letters and emails when someone writes something for someone else, e.g. a secretary of the queen replying to a letter.
- P.S. – From the Latin “post scriptum”, meaning “after writing” (“post” also meaning “after” in English expressions like “post-war”). Used at the end of an email or letter to mean “by the way”/ “just one more thing”. Less casual than those expressions, but still not suitable for formal emails and letters because it makes it appear that you didn’t plan your writing well.
- pp. – Meaning “pages”/ “from page… to page…” (with a repeated letter to represent plurals, as in some expressions in modern Romance languages such as “EEUU” for “The United States”). Sometimes written as “pgs…” in less academic writing.
- sic. – Used to mean something like “as it was written”, to show that the mistake was in the original quote and so wasn’t added by the person who quoted it. Also sometimes used to show that the person quoting is more knowledgeable than the source, but this is obviously quite unpleasant and pretentious. Almost always pretentious if used in speech.
Although I don’t have any evidence for this, I also tell my class that “fig.1” must come from Latin for “figura 1” or something. This is to stop them using “figure” to mean diagram/ chart/ illustration, because “a figure” actually means “a (single) number” in English, as in the expression “Tell me some figures”, which doesn’t mean “Tell me some diagrams”.
Other Latin abbreviations that might come up in more specialist classes include:
- PhD/ Ph.D. – Meaning “Doctor of Philosophy” (with the letters the wrong way round because it comes from Latin), but actually used for any kind of doctorate. The abbreviation is also spoken.
- cf. – Meaning “compare with”, usually meaning that you should compare, or more commonly contrast, what has just been mentioned with a different source that is mentioned after “cf.”
- MD – From a Latin expression meaning “medical doctor” (although the longer spoken version would normally be “Doctor of Medicine” in English). Also sometimes spoken, although it’s more common just to put “Doctor…” before someone’s name.
- c./ ca. – Short for “circa, meaning “around”/ “about”/ “approximately” and used when a date isn’t exactly known. The abbreviation is only written but the longer Latin word “circa” is also used in speaking.
- AD/ A.D. – From “in the year of our Lord”. Also spoken, but usually replaced by “CE” for “in the common era” in modern history books.
- et al. – Meaning “and others”, meaning there were more authors than you have listed, for example because there were more than two or more than three authors.
- ibid. – Meaning “(please) see the same source as previously quoted”, making it similar to “ditto”.
- op. cit. – Meaning “in the work cited/ quoted (before)”. Unlike “ibid.”, also possible when there have been quotes from other sources in between the two mentions of this source.
- M.O. – From “modus operandi”, meaning “method of operating” and most often used to explain how a criminal (usually) goes about doing crime. Both the abbreviation and longer Latin expression are also used in speech (or at least they are in police dramas!)
- cwt – Meaning “hundredweight” (“c” coming from “centi” for a hundred, as in “centimetre”).
- Q.E.D – From the Latin “quod erat demonstrandum”, meaning “which was to be demonstrated” or “which was what I wanted to prove”. Quite pretentious if used in speech.
There are also some useful expressions which (probably) come from Latin but which also have longer English versions, meaning that it is probably isn’t worth mentioning their Latin roots, such as:
- Re:, meaning “Regarding”
- RIP, meaning “Rest in peace”
- p, meaning “page”
I would also say that “versus” and its shorter versions “v” and “vs” have now become (spoken and written) English words, meaning there is no need to mention their Latin roots. However, if you want to make a whole lesson on Latin abbreviations and are short a couple, there is no harm in also including one or more of these. Another possibility is to do a lesson on abbreviations more generally. For example, I often mix up Latin abbreviations with other shorter and/ or more informal forms such as “ASAP”, particularly when teaching emailing or academic writing.
How to present and practise Latin abbreviations
All the activities below can be used at the presentation and/ or practice stage of a lesson, perhaps with more help if it’s a presentation stage.
Mixed longer expressions
This is perhaps the easiest task to set up and do. Each abbreviation is given with one or more longer English expression, but with the English words mixed up. For example, if the first question says “e.g. – an for for example example give instance to”, the students need to put it back into order as “e.g. – for example/ for instance/ to give an example”.
Matching Latin abbreviations and English expressions activities
A difficulty of teaching English abbreviations like “BW” for “Best wishes” is that matching up abbreviations and long forms is much too easy and so doesn’t help make the language memorable. Luckily, with Latin abbreviations, being too easy is never a problem! My favourite presentation activity for Latin abbreviations is therefore to get students to match up “i.e.” with “that is to say”/ “in other words”, “etc” with “and so on”/ “and so forth”, and so forth. The simplest way to set this is up is to give the abbreviations in sentences like “The first known toilet was built in Ca. 500 BCE” and ask students to match them to the longer expressions like “approximately” at the bottom of the page. If that would be too easy, you could give the longer forms in a long string or words which hasn’t been split into expressions, as in “figure per year in the morning for example for instance”. If students are likely to need help, you could give them the longer Latin forms and/ or literal translations to aid them after they have tried it with no help for a while. After checking their answers, you could test them on their memory of what they just matched up, e.g. trying to replace longer phrases in context with some Latin abbreviations, this time without any help.
If this task is likely to be too challenging and/ or you don’t have time to or don’t want to give context for the expressions, another possibility is for students to match up the abbreviation plus another way of putting it with another longer form on the other side, e.g. “etc/ and so forth” on one side with “and so on/ amongst other examples” on the other.
Latin abbreviations pairwork matching
Matching Latin abbreviations and longer English expressions like “PS” and “by the way”/ “just one more thing” can also be done as a pairwork speaking activity, either at the presentation stage or practice stage. Make a Student A worksheet and a Student B worksheet with the longer version on one worksheet and the Latin abbreviation on the other. Put both forms in context but in different sentences, e.g. “When I finish my Master’s I want to take a break before I take my PhD” on the Student A sheet and “It took me six years to finish my doctorate, but I couldn’t find a job in academia when I finished it” on Student B’s. Mix up the sentences on one of the worksheets to make the matching task more difficult. In pairs, students try to match up the abbreviations and longer English expressions, first of all with no help and then reading out their whole sentences to help check from context. The whole task should be done without them showing their worksheets to each other, but note that this might mean students having to pronounce some abbreviations which are only usually written, something that might be worth mentioning later in the lesson.
Latin abbreviations Call My Bluff
Give groups of students different Latin abbreviations with some true information about each such as:
- Example sentences
- The longer Latin expressions
- Literal translations of the Latin expressions
- Equivalent longer English expressions
- Differences with other abbreviations and longer expressions
- If they are written, spoken or both
- The kinds of contexts they are used in
Ask students to make two other false options for one of those things, e.g. “PS means the same as ‘anyway’” and “PS means the same as ‘I think we’ve covered everything’” to go with “PS means the same as ‘by the way’”. They read out or show the three options to another group, hoping the other group chooses the wrong one.
Latin abbreviations dictation activities
There are several dictation-like activities which work well with this language.
Add the abbreviations dictation
Prepare a text with lots of Latin abbreviations (or prepare at least ten unrelated sentences if it’s too difficult to make a single text combining all the abbreviations). Then write another version of the same text with all the abbreviations replaced by longer English expressions. Make a list of all the matching longer versions and abbreviations (“cf. = compare with…” etc), and give just that list to the students. Read out the version of the text with the longer expressions in. Ask students to write down abbreviations whenever they hear a longer expression on their worksheet (in the same order as the text, and not writing anything else but the abbreviations). After they compare the abbreviations that they wrote in pairs, read out the same text again for students to check and add to their list of suitable abbreviations. In the next stage, ask students to turn over the original list of matching abbreviations and long forms that you gave them, then give them the text with the longer versions in for them to add their list of abbreviations to. Let them compare their answers, then give them the text with the abbreviations in to check. You can then test them in other ways, e.g. asking them to put the abbreviations in the same or a similar text with no help.
This task can also be done with students dictating, perhaps in pairs and/ or with texts that students have made up themselves.
Expand the abbreviations dictation
The Add the Abbreviations Dictation activity above also works the other way round, with students listening out for abbreviations and writing down the longer forms from a list to add to the text later. Note that with this variation it is much easier for students to spot the bits which need replacing during the dictation stage, but students will need some time to write the longer expressions.
Spot the abbreviations dictation
This task is similar to the ones above but with less listening power and thinking power involved. Students are given a text with the expressions all in full and listen to the teacher or a partner read out the same text but with things replaced by Latin abbreviations. The first time they listen, they only underline the bits which are different in the two texts. After working with a partner to try to remember the abbreviations that they heard, they are given a list of mixed abbreviations and/ or listen again to check. After checking their answers, they are then given a text with the abbreviations in and have to remember the long versions from their first text. You could then move onto asking them to remember short or long forms without any context etc to help.
Latin abbreviations reversi
Prepare cards with abbreviations on one side and full English forms on the other, preferably in example sentences, especially if students don’t know the expressions well yet. Students spread the cards across the table, either side up. One student tries to guess what is on the other side of one card then turns it over to check. If they are right, they leave the card that way up (the opposite way to how it was before they guessed it) and try again with other cards. When they make a mistake, that last card goes back to the same way as before and play passes to the next person. The next student can do the same with the same cards as they saw being attempted by someone else, other cards which haven’t be tried yet, or probably a mix of the two. The winner is the person who has the longest string of uninterrupted correct guesses during the game, e.g. ten correct guesses in a row the fourth time that it was their turn.
Latin abbreviations in communicative activities
Students discuss questions, statements or texts which include Latin abbreviations in context, then try to remember what they saw. For example, if they are asked to discuss “What things most need to change in this town (e.g. the transport system or public housing)?”, they can later be tested on their memory of the abbreviation “e.g.” with prompts like “What things most need to change in this town (__________ the transport system or public housing)?” or “What things most need to change in this town (for example, the transport system or public housing)?”