How to Use et al.

Among abbreviations and terms that scholars encounter, “et al.” stands out for its significance. Understanding its proper usage is not just a matter of scholarly accuracy, but also a testament to one’s commitment to clear communication. In articles, research papers, and bibliographies, this abbreviation is often used to refer to multiple authors of a work when citing a source, especially when a work has three or more authors. However, there is more to this abbreviation. This article delves into the intricacies of “how to use et al. — its origins, appropriate contexts, and common misconceptions.

Et al. Meaning and History

The term “et al.” has been employed in academic and professional contexts for centuries, and while many might recognize its use, not everyone knows its origins or intricacies. It is a Latin abbreviation for “et alia”, which means “and others.” Notably, Latin was the lingua franca of the educated elite in Europe for centuries. As scholarly works and scientific collaborations became more common and the number of authors per paper increased, listing all authors when citing sources became impractical. Hence, “et al.” became a convenient shorthand.

This practice can be traced back to the Renaissance, a period known for reviving classical learning and Latin texts. As the scientific method became more prominent and the dissemination of research findings became standard practice, the abbreviation found its place in the bibliographies of countless works. However, many students may not be sure of how to write et al. or what does et al. mean in a citation. This issue can be fixed with the information below.

When Do You Use et al.?

The main place where et al. usage is dominant is the realm of academics. Scholars, students, and other interested parties can come across this Latin phrase in the following cases:

  • Academic Citations: When referencing a work with multiple authors in academic papers, especially if detailing all authors would be cumbersome.
  • Reference Lists/Bibliographies: In some citation styles, when citing sources with multiple authors in a bibliography or reference list.
  • Repeated References: After introducing all study authors once, “et al.” can be used in subsequent mentions to streamline citations.
  • Formal Reports/Professional Writing: When referencing studies, reports, or publications with several authors in formal or professional documents.
  • Following Citation Style Guidelines: Use “et al.” as dictated by specific citation styles like APA, MLA, or Chicago, which have particular rules about their application.
  • Abstracts and Summaries: In shortened forms of academic writing, brevity is crucial.

It is important to note that neglecting to use the abbreviation can even be considered an error. Many students, in fact, have been said to avoid using et al. in a sentence because it enables them to hit word count easier. This trick does not work with most teachers and it is better to embrace the phrase.

Et al. Usage Beyond Academics

“Et al.” is a term rooted in practicality, mainly for brevity in academic and bibliographic contexts. However, language is dynamic, and sometimes its usage evolves or is adopted in unusual ways. Here are a few atypical examples and situations that can be indicators when to use et al.:

  • Legal Cases: There are cases where the abbreviation appears in somewhat strange or unexpected contexts. For example, when a large group of plaintiffs is named in a lawsuit, it’s not unusual to see a title like “John Doe et al. vs. Corporation X,” implying John Doe and several others.
  • Artistic Interpretations: There are artists, writers, and musicians who’ve used the phrase as part of their pseudonyms, group names, or titles, sometimes to suggest a collective identity or to introduce ambiguity about their numbers or membership.
  • Jokes and Puns: In casual conversation or academic humor, it has been a source of wordplay. For example, someone discussing a paper written by a long list of co-authors might joke, “It’s a work by Smith, Jones, et al.—I’ve always wanted to meet this Et Al, he seems to be involved in so many projects!
  • Non-Academic Lists: It’s sometimes playfully used in non-academic settings when someone wants to humorously imply “and others” without listing everyone. For instance, in informal writing or social media, someone might list a few friends attending an event and then add “et al.” for comedic effect.
  • Mistaken Usage: Sometimes, people don’t understand the team’s purpose and use it incorrectly, leading to strange or comical results. For example, listing two items or people and adding “et al.” (which is unnecessary and incorrect for just one additional item or person).
  • Scientific Names: In taxonomy, the person who first describes a species is attributed when the species name is mentioned. If there are multiple discoverers, the abbreviation might be used. It can look strange when the species name, usually in Latin, is combined with the descriptor, leading to combinations like “Homo Sapiens Smith et al.”

These examples highlight the versatility of language and the creative ways terms can be adopted and adapted outside their standard contexts.

When Do You Use et al.? Formal Guidelines for Students

“Et al.” is not merely a matter of personal preference or convenience. Various citation styles, employed to maintain consistency and clarity in academic and professional writing, offer guidelines on when and how to use this abbreviation. The APA (American Psychological Association) and MLA (Modern Language Association) styles, two of the most widely-used citation styles, have specific recommendations regarding the use of “et al.” Understanding these guidelines can help writers ensure accuracy and appropriateness in their citations.

APA Style

This style emphasizes clarity and brevity, aiming to minimize disruptions in the flow of the text while providing readers with enough information to locate the original sources.

In-text citations: When a work has three or more authors, only the first author’s name is listed, followed by “et al.” This applies to all citations of that work from the first citation onward.

Et al. Example:

Research conducted by Johnson, Smith, and Brown can be cited as:

First and subsequent citations: (Johnson et al., 2020)

Reference list: In the reference list, works with up to 20 authors should list every author. Only when a work has 21 or more authors, “et al.” is used after the 19th author.


For a work with 22 authors: Johnson, A., Smith, B., Brown, C.,…Doe, Z., et al. (2020). Title of the article. Journal Name, volume(issue), pages.

Note on APA 7th Edition: The 7th edition of the APA Publication Manual (released in 2019) updated the guidelines. Previously, in the 6th edition, “et al.” was recommended for works with six or more authors in the reference list. Current writers should be aware of this change and ensure they’re using the latest guidelines.

MLA Style

While the style shares the same general goal as APA—to provide a clear and consistent means of referencing sources—it has its unique guidelines.

In-text citations: When a source has three authors, list all authors in the in-text citation. When a source has four or more authors, only the first author’s name should be listed, followed by “et al.”


For a work by Johnson, Smith, and Brown: (Johnson, Smith, and Brown 45).

For a work by Johnson, Smith, Brown, and Doe: (Johnson et al. 45).

Works Cited list: For the Works Cited entry, if the source has three or more authors, only the first author’s name should be listed, followed by “et al.”


For a work by Johnson, Smith, Brown, and Doe: Johnson, Albert, et al. Title of the Book. Publisher, Publication Date.

The abbreviation can sometimes be confusing for writers, especially those unfamiliar with the specifics of their chosen citation style. Regularly consulting the respective style manual or guide and seeking examples in published articles or papers can be instrumental in ensuring accuracy. It’s also worth noting that while APA and MLA are common styles, many other citation styles (like Chicago, Turabian, and Harvard) have their own guidelines. As always, the key is to be consistent and to prioritize clarity for the reader. and Other Questions

Students, especially those new to academic writing, often encounter challenges with the proper use and punctuation of “et al.” Here are some of the main issues:

  • Misspelling the Term: et al? A common mistake is misspelling the abbreviation. Some students might write it as “at el.,” “et. al,” “etal,” or other variations.
  • Incorrect Punctuation: The abbreviation has a specific punctuation: “et” is not followed by a period, but “al.” is. Misplacing or omitting the period is a frequent error. Also, there can be a comma before et al. depending on the style.
  • Improper Use of Italics: It might need to be italicized depending on the citation style. Some students overlook this requirement, while others might italicize it in unnecessary styles.
  • Capitalization Issues: Beginning a sentence with “et al.” is generally discouraged, but if it does occur, students sometimes forget to capitalize “Et.”
  • Overuse: Some students use it even when not required. For instance, they might use it for sources with only two authors, even in citation styles that only call for its use with three or more authors.
  • Inconsistency in Application: Within a single paper, students might alternate between listing all authors and using “et al.” This inconsistency can confuse readers and suggests a lack of attention to the citation style’s guidelines.
  • Misunderstanding Its Application: Some students believe they can use the abbreviation in the reference list or bibliography, like in the in-text citation. However, many citation styles have different rules for in-text citations versus the bibliography or reference list.
  • Incorrect Placement: The placement of the year of publication in relation to the abbreviation can vary between citation styles. For instance, in APA style, an in-text citation might look like (Smith et al., 2020), but students sometimes mistakenly format it as (Smith, 2020 et al.).
  • Failure to Introduce Authors First: In some papers, especially when a particular work is central to the discussion, it’s customary to list all the authors the first time a work is cited before using “et al.” in subsequent citations.
  • Confusion with Multiple Works by the Same First Author: When referencing multiple works by the same first author but with different co-authors, students might indiscriminately use “et al.,” making it unclear which specific work they are referencing.

To overcome these challenges, students should familiarize themselves with the specific citation style requirements they are using and find answers on how to use et al. in a sentence, how to use et al. in email, or even in unofficial instances. Seeking feedback, using citation management tools, and reviewing well-cited papers in their field can help students understand and know that the abbreviation et al. is used when the rules call for it.

Et al. vs etc. and other Abbreviations

Navigating the realm of scholarly abbreviations, especially those rooted in Latin, can be a daunting task for writers. This becomes particularly true when they appear similar or are employed in overlapping contexts. To clarify some of this potential confusion, let’s delve into a concise table that distinguishes between the abbreviations “et al.”, “etc.”, “et seq.”, and “ibid.”:

Abbreviation Origin Usage Context
Et al. Et alia/alii/aliae (“and others”) Used in academic citations to indicate additional authors beyond those named. Primarily academic, especially in references and citations.
Etc. Et cetera (“and the rest”) Indicates the continuation of a list without listing all items. General writing and casual speech.
Et seq. Et sequens/sequentia (“and the following”) Points to a section/page in a document and indicates the following ones are also relevant. Mostly in legal writing or references.
Ibid. Ibidem (“in the same place”) Refers to the same source as the previous citation without repeating it in footnotes or endnotes. Academic and scholarly writing, especially in footnotes and endnotes.

Understanding the nuanced differences between these abbreviations is essential for accurate communication in academic and scholarly writing. As we see, each abbreviation, though short, carries a unique origin, purpose, and context. Properly deploying them not only ensures clarity but also showcases the writer’s proficiency and respect for established scholarly conventions. As with any aspect of writing, familiarity, and consistent practice, guided by reference materials, will lead to mastery.

Mastering the nuances of academic conventions can elevate the clarity and credibility of scholarly work. Its historical origins, best practices, and common pitfalls indicate its importance. Remember, “et al.” is more than just a space-saving tool; it’s a nod to collaborative efforts in the academic world. By understanding how to use “et al.” correctly, we not only honor the contributions of all authors but also uphold the traditions of clear and respectful scholarly discourse.

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