I want to start off by making one thing clear: it’s “et cetera,” not “excetera” or “eccetera.” There is no “x” in “et cetera” just as there is no “x” in “espresso.” I feel better now we have that out of the way. The terms “et celery” and “Xterra” are also incorrect.
The word phrase “et cetera,” or “etc.,” as it is often abbreviated, is an old, leftover Latin term that means “and the rest.” We use it when we are listing things and our listener or reader gets the idea of what we mean without having to finish the exhaustive list.
Pinocchio was overheard saying, “Oh, you know, I lie about pretty much everything: what kind of wood I’m made out of, whether or not I have termites, if I use Pine-Sol on my nose, et cetera.”
“Et cetera” indicates something to the effect of “you get the idea.”
While “etcetera” and “et cetera” are technically both correct, the two-word “et cetera” gets used considerably more often. I recommend using the two-word version (et cetera) or the abbreviated “etc.” with the period at the end. I should point out that the grammar advisors who have gone before me encourage writers to avoid “etc.” in formal writing.
It’s important to know the difference between “et cetera” and another Latin term, “et alia,” or “et al.” for short. “Etc.” means “and the rest of the things,” while “et al.” means “and the other people.”
When asked who her new roommates were, Snow White would not say, “You know, Dopey, Sleepy, Bashful, etc.” Instead, she should say, “You know, Dopey, Sleepy, Bashful, et al.,” since the Seven Dwarfs are people, not objects. It would be appropriate for Sneezy to recount his mining crew’s haul for the day as: “We pulled out a little bit of everything down there today: diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, etc.”
When you do use the term “et cetera,” make sure you use at least two objects in your list before dropping the “etc.” bomb. Your list should give your listener a good idea of the type of things you’re recounting. So, you shouldn’t say, “I enjoy sports, like football, etc.” A one-item list doesn’t give you enough information to go on.
Instead, use at least two, but preferably at least three: “I enjoy sports like football, rugby, soccer, etc.” This gives you a better idea of the types of sports the person likes.
By knowing the rules for the term “et cetera,” you’ll be able to impress all kinds of people: your Zoom workmates, your next-door neighbors, the barista at the coffee shop who wears glasses, your smart aunt, et al.
Curtis Honeycutt is a syndicated humor columnist. He is the author of Good Grammar is the Life of the Party: Tips for a Wildly Successful Life. Find more at curtishoneycutt.com.