Have you seen the musical The King and I? If so, you might remember King Mongkut’s catchphrase, “Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.” Why did this Siamese king find the phrase so useful? You might love it as much as he did once you find out exactly how to use it.
Et cetera is a Latin phrase. Et means “and.” Cetera means “the rest.” The abbreviation of et cetera is etc. The abbreviation is more common than the full phrase in business and technical writing. You use it when you begin a list that you will not complete; it indicates that there are other items in the list besides the ones you explicitly mention.
For example, in one scene from The King and I, King Mongkut tells his governess the rules of conduct that she will have to follow in his presence. He explains that her head should never be higher than his. She will have to sit when he sits, kneel when he kneels, “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.” If he had not used the phrase, he might have felt the need to continue with more actions of the same class—when he lies or bends down, for example. Et cetera allows him to get the point across and move on.
When a foreign phrase becomes part of another language, speakers of that languages don’t always know exactly how to pronounce it. Or they might have trouble with the foreign pronunciation. The et of et cetera has a final T sound, but some Americans substitute a K sound. This kind of mispronunciation is called assimilation. It is a mistake, but a very common one. If you are aware of it, you can avoid making the same mistake and also recognize the phrase even when you hear it mispronounced. Native speakers also extend the meaning of certain foreign phrases beyond their definition in the original language. Et cetera often appears when someone finds a list tedious or obvious. They might utter it in a tired tone or say the phrase rapidly.
If you are writing a research paper or any other formal work, be especially careful of how you use et cetera. First of all, it can be used only when the unmentioned items are of the same type as the items mentioned earlier. Imagine that King Mongkut also wanted his governess to eat when he eats and clap when he claps. He could not use et cetera to indicate this after saying she should sit when he sits because those actions don’t logically belong to the same class as the others.
Allow the children to eat only healthy food—vegetables, fruits, etc. (You establish the category and then give a few examples.)
Allow the children to eat only healthy food—vegetables, cupcakes, etc. (This is an incorrect usage because everything on the list should fall into the category of healthy food.)
The children should bring paper, pencils, scissors, etc. (You can discern the category from the examples.)
The children should bring crayons, blankets, birth certificates, etc. (The class is not clear. Unless you previously state the connection between the items and the rest of the list is easily imaginable, you can’t use etc.)
A good way to test whether etc. is appropriate is to substitute “and so on” or “and so forth.” If those synonyms make sense with the context, you can use etc. You should never use “and et cetera.” Remember, et means “and,” so “and et cetera” is redundant.
Usage note: Don’t use a comma after etc. if it is at the end of the sentence.
One of the governess’s job duties is to teach the king about Western culture. In the film, she introduces him to the phrase et cetera, and he embraces it wholeheartedly. It’s pretty common in technical writing, so it is important to know what it means. Poet E.E. Cummings even wrote a poem about it! If you feel the same amount of enthusiasm, make an effort to use it in the correct way. And if it’s not your cup of tea, don’t worry. You can always use a synonym.
from Grammarly Blog