How to use Latin (Part 1)

How to use Latin

Latin words and phrases in English writing.

There are many Latin words and phrases floating around in everyday prose and academic writing. Understanding what they mean can help you use them correctly.

Latin is a tricky, dead language (“dead” meaning that it no longer develops, not that it isn’t spoken). Personally, I’ve suffered through a Latin Translation undergrad exam (I say suffered – that’s an understatement). Anyway, you don’t need to speak the language to find these phrases useful. In academic writing – specifically – some of these are unavoidable in reading or writing like, inter alia, when many authors are mentioned, or the text is in the legal field.

I’ve decided to break this up across multiple posts (there are a lot of these out there).

Ad hoc

They formed an ad hoc committee and still could not reach a decision.

Let’s start with a tricky one. It translates to for this thing. It refers to something that comes into being without prior planning for a particular purpose. For example, if a business decision needs to be made on the spur of the moment – without appropriate board members in attendance – those that are available, form an ad hoc committee to deal with the situation.

Note on use

You are unlikely to find this term in informal writing. The easiest way to remember ad hoc is to remember that it relates to something created for a particular purpose.

Ad nauseam

He marketed his blog ad nauseam.

This one is straightforward. It literally means:to the point of disgust. It usually refers to something repeated over and over and over again.

Bona fide(s)

We’re dealing with a bona fide secret agent here.

This is one for the legal eagles among you. The correct Latin is actually “bona fides” – with an es – but this tends to be dropped as it makes the word sound like a plural (which it ain’t, most of the time). It translates to in good faith and is often used to denote something as genuine or sincere.

Et Al.

In their article on the elastic properties of pasta, Kloppenborg et al. (2018) state that…

This is an abbreviation of the plural phrase et alia (neuter), et aliae (feminine), and et alii (masculine). You can see why it’s abbreviated to just the four letters. This translates as “and others and is used to indicate that there are more, unsaid items in a list. Most commonly, it is used in referencing works with multiple authors.

Note on use

Always place Latin, Greek, French, etc. words and phrases in italics. Because et al. is an abbreviation, it needs a period at the end, but it is a matter of style in this case. Some editors (myself included) take out the period as it makes in-text references rather messy.

Note that the use of et al. varies depending on the style used (Harvard, Chicago, etc.). However, for the most part, it is used if there are three authors or more and only from the second use of the reference. The latter implies that, when a three-plus authored referenced is used for the first time, all the authors must be named. There are exceptions, of course, but that’s for another time.

Et cetera

I’m making sandwiches; so, I need bread, ham, lettuce, etc.

This translates to and so forth and is commonly abbreviated as “etc.”. You’ve seen this a lot, haven’t you?

This useful phrase is used to indicate that a list of items carries on beyond what has been said. Most often, the unnamed things in the list are obvious and don’t need to be stated (e.g. the list of sandwich ingredients above). It can also be used in a derogatory way: indicating a tedious list of items. For example: “He didn’t complete the work because he has the flu, doesn’t have a computer, etc., etc.”

Note on use

It is abbreviated as “etc.” (note the period – almost all abbreviations are marked by a period). The period can mess you up – trust me, I’ve seen many students over/under do it with the periods. Here’s a rule of thumb:

  • If the etc. is at the end of the sentence, the abbreviation period also acts as the period ending the sentence (never have two periods consecutively – no-no do this).
  • If the etc. is not at the end of the sentence, the next word does not start with a capital letter. (You can have a comma after an abbreviation period. For example: He showered, brushed his teeth, etc., before going down to dinner).

Side note: etc. isn’t italicized. While this is the practice with all Latin words and phrases in English, the italicization (i.e. making ‘em slanty) has fallen out of fashion. That’s right, people used to do it, now it’s too much trouble.

Less is more

As with anything, moderation is key. Overusing Latin words and phrases will become tedious quickly. Be sure to use them only when required, and only if English words and phrases won’t do. Remember: Clarity is more important than cleverness.

To be continued…

Have you used any of these Latin words and phrases? Please share below. Also, tell me if which Latin terms you’d like me to include in the upcoming posts.

Join me for Part 2 when I’ll explain, inter alia, some famous customers (i.e. and e.g.). I’ll also tell you what inter alia means. Don’t miss a beat – be sure to subscribe!

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Allen, S. n.d. What does et al. mean? Available at: (Accessed: 31/07/2018) s.v. “et cetera”. Available at: (Accessed: 31/07/2018)

Mairs, J. What does ad hoc mean? Available at: (Accessed: 31/07/2018)

Reader’s Digest. 1989. Reverse Dictionary. Berkeley Square: London

Top Image: A Priestess of Bacchus, by John William Godward (1890), Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

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