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I have a couple of English usage manuals on my desk (Fowler 2e and Garner). Fowler says it's silly to restrict etc. to things rather than people, while Garner says to use etc. only for things, et al. only for people.

They seem to agree implicitly that for an actual Latin speaker, this distinction would make sense. What is the distinction? Does it have to do with gender? Or is "cetera" a word like "stuff," which in English we would never use for humans or house pets? My understanding is that cetera is sort of like "the remainder" or "the leftovers." Does alia only refer to people in Latin, or could alia refer to shoes and socks?

To me the main distinction between the two, as used in English, would be that we should only use etc. when the reader will not have to do the work of imagining what it entails, because it's obvious (1, 2, 3, etc.; A, B, C, etc.) -- while we use et alia in cases where the reader will not have to do the work of figuring out what it entails because they wouldn't even have any grounds on which to figure that out (Smith et al., New England Journal of Medicine). Is this related in any way to the Latin meanings?

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etc.

Et cetera (etc.) uses the neuter plural of ceterus. It literally means "and the other [things]."

(N.B. The linked L&S entry mentions that it differs from reliquus because it refers to "other things of the same sort," not the "remaining part of the same thing.")

"Et cetera" was already a stock phrase in Latin, though perhaps not quite as much as in English. The abbreviation "etc." is paralleled by the Greek "κτλ." = "καὶ τὰ λοιπά."

The neuter plural cetera is not suitable in Latin to refer to a group of people. There are numerous instances of et ceteri ("and the other [people]") in Latin, but this isn't formulaic, nor does "etc." ever refer to this personal construction. In short, if you want to follow Latin usage, et cetera should be used for things.

et al.

"Et al.," on the other hand, can be an abbreviation for several phrases using alius:

  • et alii (masculine plural)
  • et aliae (feminine plural)
  • et alia (neuter plural)

The first two forms, unlike et cetera, can easily be used for a group of people. Unlike et cetera, though, I don't see any indication that the phrase was formulaic--though the combination of words is (obviously) quite common.

In a reference to a list of authors, et al. would be appropriate (either as et alii for a male or mixed group or as et aliae for a female group).

In summary

  • et cetera is appropriate for a generic list of things and is an established formula, both in English and in Latin.
  • et al., on the other hand, can refer to both people and things, but it's not really an established formula in Latin. In English, its use should probably be restricted to those situations (like citations or legal contexts) where it is expected.

Given the widespread use of "etc." in English, though, you may be on shaky footing demanding that "etc." not refer to people, since it has strayed pretty far from its Latin origin. There's a fine line between careful writing and pedantry.

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