In ancient Rome, if you wished to establish yourself as a member of elite society, you spoke Greek.
Latin? Naw, every plebeian (and most of the slaves) spoke Latin. Regularly speaking Latin marked you as a commoner. Knowing fluent Greek was a symbol of prestige.
From the Middle Ages onward, though, Latin displaced Greek as the hallmark of a distinguished education. Latin provided a common tongue for the Church and for aristocrats with dealings across national borders. And that association between the Latin language and a veneer of sophistication remains in place today. It’s no coincidence that major universities still issue diplomas written in Latin. Obscure Latin terms and abbreviations are part of the professional vocabulary for doctors, lawyers, and academic scholars.
So, if Latin is the hallmark of sophistication, should you be using it more often on your professional website?
The Parable of the Oyster
Ceteris paribus (other things being equal), using Latin in your professional written materials is likely to be detrimental rather than helpful. No, wait. Stop right here, and we’ll show you why. Look back at the start of this paragraph. How did you feel as a reader when you encountered “ceteris paribus”? You felt as if the writer was straining just a little too hard to impress you, right? And then the translation, in parentheses: that’s just snooty. The subtext is the writer saying to the reader, “You’re too dumb to know this phrase, and I think you’re too stupid to Google it to find out what it means.” Instead of sounding refined, the author appears contemptuous of the reader.
Contempt is a poor strategy for getting a favorable sales reaction. A little bit of irritation may be the secret of coaxing an oyster to grow a pearl. Irritating potential clients and customers, however, is a great way to send them scampering to your competition.
It is not your professional vocabulary that will alienate readers, even if your profession uses obscure terms borrowed from dead languages. A more pressing danger is the way you sneak pretentious Latin phrases into casual website writing—a guaranteed method to drive people away. But there’s one thing even worse: using Latin terms incorrectly.
Latin Terms You Ought to Know (and Ought to Avoid)
Let’s take a look at a couple of terms that have migrated from Latin over to conventional English:
- e.g. stands for exempli gratia. Literally, this means “for the sake of an example,” and it is used to mean “for example” or “for examples.” Here’s how it’s used: When preparing omelets, Warren was likely to use unusual ingredients, e.g., jellybeans and peat moss.
- i.e. stands for id est, Latin for “it is.” The abbreviation is used to mean “that is” or “in other words,” and is followed by a definition or clarification. Example: Now that Miranda was working for Foster Web Marketing, she had only one goal in life, i.e., to write the Great American Blog post.
Both of these abbreviations follow identical usage rules: they should be lower-case, with no spaces between the letters; both periods must appear. The abbreviation should not be italicized, but it should be followed by a comma to set off the clarifying material.
Avoid both of these expressions. Surveys regularly find that even skilled writers are unclear when it’s appropriate to use them (especially i.e.), and readers are confused when they appear in general-interest writing. Many of your best customers and clients are not strong readers, so you are better off using “for example” or “in other words” rather than a highfalutin Latin abbreviation. Your mission is to use your website to educate and welcome visitors, and anything that gets in the way of clear communication should be set aside.
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