The Grammarphobia Blog

On “i.e.” versus “viz.”

Q: I came across the following on your blog: But they had one obvious difference, i.e., their ears.” In my opinion, “i.e.” is not correct here—it should be “viz.” They are, admittedly, close in meaning, but as Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) says, “Care should be taken to distinguish viz. from i.e.

A: Here we must disagree with you and, to some extent, with R. W. Burchfield, author of the latest edition of Fowler’s.

These abbreviations may not be identical, but the difference between them is so slight that it nearly vanishes on close examination. And the use of “viz.” in nonscholarly writing would stop readers in their tracks.

In fact, better writers don’t use either of these scholarly abbreviations, though we’ve occasionally slipped up on our blog. We used “i.e.” in that posting to explain how it differs from “e.g.”

As we wrote, “i.e.” is an abbreviation of “id est” (in Latin id est means “that is”).

In English, the Oxford English Dictionary says, the term means “that is to say” or “that is,” and is “used to introduce an explanation of a word or phrase.”

In the sentence you mention—“But they had one obvious difference, i.e., their ears”—the abbreviation is correctly used, according to the OED definition. It introduces an explanation of a phrase, “one obvious difference.”

The two standard dictionaries we rely on the most—Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.)—say “i.e.” means simply “that is.”

That other scholarly abbreviation, “viz.,” is short for “videlicet” (in Latin videlicet means “it may be seen”).

The original Latin word is composed of the stem of videre (“see”), plus licet (“it is permissible”). In medieval Latin, “z” was the usual contraction for et or -et, which explains the presence of “z” in the abbreviation “viz.”

In English, the OED says, “videlicet” (and its abbreviation “viz.”) means “that is to say,” “namely,” or “to wit.”

The term is used, Oxford adds, “to introduce an amplification, or more precise or explicit explanation, of a previous statement or word.”

The standard dictionaries give similar definitions for “viz.” Merriam-Webster’s gives “that is to say” or “namely,” while American Heritage gives “that is” or “namely.”

It seems to us that the difference between “i.e.” and “viz.” is extremely small, if it exists at all.

Judging from the OED descriptions, it would appear that “i.e.” further explicates a preceding word or phrase, while “viz.” is broader in that it can also explicate a preceding statement.

As you say, Fowler’s advises that care should be taken in distinguishing between them.

But Fowler’s itself doesn’t clearly distinguish between them. And its explanations don’t agree with those in the OED. Here’s what Fowler’s has to say on the subject:

● “i.e. means ‘that is to say,’ and introduces another way (more comprehensible to the reader, driving home the reader’s point better, or otherwise preferable) of putting what has already been said.” [Burchfield no doubt meant “the writer’s point.”]

● “As is suggested by its usual spoken substitute namely, viz. introduces especially the items that compose what has been expressed as a whole (For three good reasons, viz. 1 …, 2 …, 3 …) or a more particular statement of what has been vaguely described (My only means of earning, viz. my fiddle).”

As we said before, these abbreviations aren’t seen in the best writing.

Often no such introduction is needed (beyond perhaps a simple colon), and “i.e.” or “viz.” would merely add hot air.

If an introduction is needed, why not use plain English: “namely,” “that is,” “in other words,” or whatever else makes sense?

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) lists both “i.e.” and “viz.” among abbreviations and symbols “that are normally confined to bibliographic references, glossaries, and other scholarly apparatus.”

It’s been our experience that “i.e.” is sometimes seen in ordinary text or what the Chicago Manual calls “running text.”

But “viz.” is very uncommon in ordinary text; it would certainly startle the general reader.

In fact, it’s not even listed in the most recent printing of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (7th ed.).

Besides its scholarly applications, “viz.” is found in judicial writing. It’s used in legal pleadings to mean “namely,” “that is,” “as follows,” and “to wit,” according to the Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute.

As for general writing, here’s what Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) says about “viz.”:

“The English-language equivalents are namely and that is, either of which is preferable. … How does one pronounce viz.? Preferably by saying ‘namely.’ ”

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