What Is “et al.” and How Do We Use et al. in Writing?

If you are in the field of academic publishing, you should be familiar with the term “et al.”

But if you are new, you would wonder:

  • What is et al.?
  • How do we use et al.?

I first discovered the term et al. more than ten years ago, soon after landing a job with a scholarly publisher (and remain until today). As an academic publisher for a university, we publish scholarly journals and academic books.

My first assignment was administering and copyediting journal articles for a humanities journal, so I had to learn new things fast, including the correct way of using et al.

This article discusses the meaning of et al., a brief history of the abbreviation, and the term et al. is used in scholarly writing.

What is et al.?

et al. is a Latin abbreviation for “et alii,” which means “and others.” et al. is used when citing or referring to other authors in an article, book chapter, research paper, etc.

What is et al. and how do we use et al. in writing

Instead of writing all authors’ names, only the first name or author is mentioned in the paper, followed by the term “et al.”

See the following examples:

  • Dyson et al. (1947) discovered the behavior of electromagnetic particles and their influence on electrical energy
  • Our experimental data concurred with those obtained by Ferguson et al. in 2002

The term et al. is mostly seen in scholarly journal articles, academic books and other research documents in academia.

Why do we use et al.?

Why do we use et al. in writing

The primary purpose of et al. is to shorten the need to use repeated authors, especially research works done by many people. In academia, many research works are done collaboratively involving many people, especially scientific research.

Sometimes, an important experiment or discovery was achieved by people from various disciplines working on a single scientific goal. I have read about archeological discoveries spearheaded by researchers from archeology, physics and medicine. I have also read papers written by more than ten people.

Therefore, using et al. reduces the repetition of the names and provides a more comprehensive perspective on a topic. Imagine writing a paragraph consisting of a list of 10 names for a single cited work? Therefore, by shortening cited names, more emphasis can be put on the paper content, whereas the citation information goes to the bibliographic listing.

How do we use et al.?

When citing a work published by many authors, we put the first author’s name followed by et al. 

For example, we write, “Pfitzner et al. (2004) have further explained the role of STATs in inflammatory diseases, the natural immune system evolved in vertebrates to defend them from infection and damage.”

Next, the bibliographic section (the reference listing, usually the last item in an academic paper) should indicate the work accurately (including authors, year of publication, the publication type [journal, book, book chapter, etc.], volume & issue, page numbers [where relevant], city of publication [where relevant], Digital Object Identifier or DOI, etc.).

For instance, the work of Pfitzner et al. above was done by four people – Pfitzner, Kliem, Baus and Litterst. The bibliographic listing could go like the following:

Pfitzner E, Kliem S, Baus D & Litterst C. (2004). The role of STATs in inflammation and inflammatory diseases. Current Pharmaceutical Design, 10, 2839–2850. https://doi.org/10.2174/1381612043383638

Note that the final bibliographic style should follow the formatting style stipulated by the publication you are working with (i.e., italicization, abbreviation, naming convention, etc.).

How many people in a work you can use et al.?

et al. is most common when you are citing a work done by three or more authors.

But, you also need to understand that there are various formatting guidelines and writing styles. Some of the most popular formatting styles include the Chicago Manual of Style, American Psychological Association or APA Style, Modern Language Association (MLA), etc.

Different formatting guidelines have their preferred way of dealing with et al., especially on the bibliography.

For instance, the Chicago Manual of Style suggests listing up to seven authors in the reference list before using et al. On the other hand, the latest APA Style recommends using et al. in the main document when three or more authors are involved, and you can include up to 20 author names in the reference.

Other et al. formats and styles

In the publishing workflow, the usage of et al. falls under the formatting and copyediting scope. Copyediting is a crucial component in a publication that helps produce quality output.

[I have also written on what copyediting is and the main differences between copyediting and editing].

Other formats and styles we look at when using et al. include the following:

  • There should be a period after the second word, “al,” though I also notice that some journals choose not to include the period.
  • Depending on the house style, you can put the et al. term in italic or normal style. Our publishing house use the normal, roman style
  • Common with in-text citation style, you should indicate the year of work, usually included inside a bracket next to the author’s name (sometimes, at the back of sentence)
  • Since et al. involves citation, you should avoid the usage in the abstract of journal articles or proceeding papers

Do we use et al. outside of academic writing?

By now, you would notice that the term et al. is used concurrently with citations. Usage of et al. outside of academic writing is seldom if any. You may use it in a very informal setting, such as referring to your team in a social media group, but not in work emails or reports.

et al. is a case example of how academic writing differs from other types of writing: business, creative, fiction and so on. Also, et al. is not common for those not in academia. Therefore using et al. will confuse them. People might be left wondering what it means and may even think that it has a negative connotation.

Do you have experience using et al. in your work? Share your thought!

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