Latin abbreviations, such as, etc., versus, circa, et al., ibid. and id., often crop up in academic writing. While their English phrases are acceptable, researchers use Latin abbreviations as they take less time and fewer characters to write. Yet it’s not always easy to get these right. In this article, we focus on one such abbreviation – et al. by explaining what does et al. mean and how to use et al. in academic writing.
What does et al. mean in academic writing?
The number of co-authors in an academic publication is, in principle, unlimited. Imagine having to write the names of all the authors in your bibliography. This is where et al. comes into play to indicate other authors in an academic work.
Et al. is the abbreviated form of et alia (or et alii or et aliae, the masculine and feminine plural, respectively). According to the Cambridge Dictionary,1 the synonyms for et al. are “also,” “extra,” and “in addition.” Et al. is mostly used to indicate more than two people; it can also simplify subsequent references to groups of co-authors already cited in full. For example, when citing the same group of authors multiple times in your paper, using et al. can simplify the citations.
How to use et al.
The number of authors to be listed before et al. can vary depending on the style guides. A few guidelines on how to use et al. in citations and references are given below.2
- APA Style Guide
- Reference list: Et al. is never used in the reference list in APA.
- In-text Citation: Use et al. only if citing at least three authors (seventh edition). Use the first author’s last name in the signal phrase or parenthesis, followed by et al. For example,
Parenthetical: (Smith et al., 2020)
Nonparenthetical: Smith et al. (2020)
- MLA Style Guide
- Reference list: Use et al. when referencing work with three or more authors; include only the first author, followed by a comma, and the words et al, ending with a period.
- In-text Citation: Use et al. when citing a work with three or more authors. The author name is followed by the page number in place of the year. For example,
Parenthetical: …(James et al. 157-65).
Nonparenthetical: James et al. (157-65)
- Chicago Style Guide
- Reference list: When a source has more than 10 authors, list the first seven followed by “et al.” Otherwise, list every author.
- In-text Citation: When a source has four or more authors, give only the first author’s name followed by “et al.” For example,
(Bay et al. 2017, 465)
- Vancouver Style Guide
- Reference list: When a source has more than six authors, list the first six followed by “et al.” Otherwise, list every author.
- In-text Citation: When a source has three or more authors, give only the first author’s name followed by “et al.” Use et al. directly in the text, followed by the reference number. For example,
Doornbos et al. (5) agree that only one solution is viable.
Common mistakes to avoid when using et al.
- Plural vs. singular: Because a phrase ending in “et al.” refers to a group of people, use plural verbs when the “et al.” phrase is the subject.
Incorrect: Smith et al. (2015) states that …
Correct: Smith et al. (2015) state that …
Also, “et al.” is plural and indicates at least two people. So, you cannot use et al. to substitute for only one author. For example, if you are dealing with three authors and have typed out two names, the last author cannot be replaced with et al.
- Punctuation: “Et al.” is commonly misspelled as “et all,” “et. al.,” “et. al,” or “et-al.” Remember, “et al.” is composed of two words, with the “al” always followed by a period. The period indicates that the term is an abbreviation.
- Using the incorrect style: Decide on the style guide to follow before you start your writing. The use of et al. in a sentence can vary if using APA, MLA, etc.
- Possessive noun: When using a possessive noun, use “’s” after “et al.”
Correct: In Smith et al.s’ study.
Correct: In Smith et al.’s study.
But, it’s best to avoid possessive phrasing when using et al. Instead, change it “Smith et al. (2015) found that . . .” or “In a study by Smith et al.”
- Italics: Italicizing is unnecessary when using “et al.” But this is more of a style guideline and can vary.
- “Et Al.” vs. “Etc.” and “Et Alibi”: “Et al.,” is sometimes confused with “Etc.” and “et alibi” but they mean different things and have other usages. “Etc.” meaning “rest,” is used at the end when listing things rather than people. “Et Alibi” means “and elsewhere” and is used when listing places or locations.
Finally, remember that the purpose of using et al. is not to highlight the first author’s contribution as more important than the others, but simply to save space and time.
- Cambridge Dictionary https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/et-al
- Purdue Online Writing Lab. APA Formatting and Style Guide (7th edition) https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/research_and_citation/apa_style/apa_formatting_and_style_guide/general_format.html