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Latin is Greek to me.

Although training in the classical languages (viz. Latin and Greek) is no longer central to professional degree programs, Latin and Greek words, phrases and abbreviations still are common in formal technical and scientific writing, so a technical writer must be familiar with their meaning and usage.

During the English Renaissance in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, words poured into our language from Greek and Latin. With this rebirth of interest in classical learning, Latin became the language of scholars and the educated elite; hence, many scientific and medical terms were borrowed from Latin. One well known instance of this practice is the system of binomial nomenclature identifying each animal and plant by genus and species (e.g., Canis lupus), which was established by the Swedish botanist Carl von Linne (Carolus Linnaeus) in the eighteenth century. Also during this period the use of Latin nomenclature in anatomy, astronomy, chemistry and other sciences became standard. In addition, many scientific terms were derived by combining Latin and Greek stems (roots) and affixes (prefixes and suffixes) to form such words at atmosphere, aural, dental, illumination, malignant, ocular and oral.

This method of coining words has continued into modern times. The growth of science and technology over the last two centuries spurred the development of an international vocabulary to deal with new discoveries. Many of these words are compounds of classical stems and affixes, such as bacteriology, barometer, hypergolic, methamphetamine, microspectrophotometer and photosynthesis. In order to decode and translate such terms and derive the essential meaning, scientists need to be familiar with common Latin and Greek roots and affixes, some of which are listed in Tables 1 and 2.

To such stems, affixes are added to build words, as shown by the examples in Table 1. Numerous affixes, especially prefixes, are taken from Latin and Greek, as Table 2 shows. These lists could be extended ad nauseam, and still another table of suffixes (i.e., word endings) could be listed, but tempus fugit -- time flies.

One problem concerning the use of Latin and Greek terms is the formation of plurals. The trend today is to prefer the English (anglicized) ending. Thus, appendices is being replaced by appendixes, crania by craniums, and formulae by formulas. Consequently, some words have two plural forms, an English and a Latin or Greek version, such as cacti/cactuses, larvae/larvas, and media/mediums. However, many Greek and Latin plurals remain standard, such as algae, axes, bases, criteria, data, hypotheses, phenomena, spectra, strata, syllabi. Even so, many of these words have entered popular speech, where the Latin ending "a" is often not recognized as a plural. For example, many people say "data is," not realizing that datum is the singular. Although some usage guides and dictionaries sanction "data is" as acceptable, technical writers would do best to use "data are."
Table 1. Some common Latin and Greek roots

Root English meaning Examples

auto- self automatic, autopsy
audi- hear audible, audio
bio- life biology, symbiotic
ced- go procedure, success
claud- close conclude, occlusion
dic- say addictive, predict
duc- lead aqueduct, ductile
fac- do, make factory, infect
fer- carry aquifer, fertile
gress- step aggressive, progress
hydro- water hydraulic, hydrology
ject- throw injection, subject
magn- great magnify, magnum
mal- evil malady, malaria
morph- shape amorphous, morphology
port- carry portable, report
rupt- break eruption, rupture
spec- look inspect, specimen
techne- skill technical, tectonic
tract- pull extract, traction
vert- turn inversion, vertebra

Besides these English words derived from Latin and Greek, technical and scientific writing also uses many phrases in these and other foreign languages. Indeed, scholarly writing of all kinds frequently (perhaps too often) contains terms and abbreviations from Latin per se, some of which are listed in Tables 3 and 4. Since today we no longer readily understand Latin, the trend is to use English equivalents if possible, ceteris paribus, in order to avoid pedantic mumbo jumbo. If the Latin serves a real need or is standard in the field, it should be used, but overuse of Latin expressions in an attempt to impress your reader results in affectation and can impede effective communication.

While it was once customary to italicize (or underline) all foreign words and phrases used in English, the trend is now to favor standard (roman) typeface if the term is familiar to the readers. Thus, most scientific journals no longer italicize "in vitro," "in vivo," and so on. Similarly, some words and phrases from foreign languages have been absorbed into general English and are no longer considered foreign terms, such as "status quo" and "vice versa." However, italics should be used for unfamiliar foreign expressions and for names of genera and species.
Table 2. Some common Latin and Greek prefixes

Root English meaning Examples

ab- away from abort, absent
anti- against antibody, antidote
bi- two bicuspid, binary
dys- bad dysentery, dysfunction
ex- out exhaust, exposure
hypo- under hypodermic, hypothermia
hyper- beyond hypertension, hypersonic
inter- between interface, intersect
micro- small microbe, microwave
multi- much multiple, multivoltine
non- not nonfat, nonviable
per- through perforate, permeable
post- after posterior, postoperative
pre- before prediction, prevent
pro- for, forward proboscis, prognosis
proto- first proton, protoplasm
semi- half semiannual, semiconductor
sub- under subatomic, subpoena
super- over superior, supervise
trans- across transfer, translate
tri- three triceratops, trilobite
un- not universe, unsaturated
uni- one unique, unit
Table 3. Latin phrases used in technical writing

Latin English

ab initio from the beginning
a fortiori with stronger reason
a posteriori from effect to cause
a priori from cause to effect
ceteris paribus other things being equal
de facto in fact
de novo anew
errata errors
ex post facto after the fact, retroactive
in situ in its original position
in toto entirely
in utero in the womb
in vacuo in a vacuum
in vitro in glass (i.e., in a test tube)
in vivo in the living body or cell
ipso facto by that very fact
per se by itself, as such

Like Latin phrases, many Latin abbreviations have been assimilated into English and are commonly used, so they need not be italicized. As with the use of Latin phrases, many writers prefer the English equivalents to these abbreviations since the abbreviations can confuse readers even worse than the full phrases. One commonly confused pair are "e.g." and "i.e." (q.v.). Since neither abbreviation saves enough space to justify possible misunderstanding, you should use the English expressions "for example" and "that is." Another commonly misused abbreviation is "etc." Since it means "and others," "and etc." is redundant. Also, you should not use "etc." at the end of a list introduced by "such as" or "for example" because these phrases already indicate that other items of the same category are not included in the list. In formal writing, "etc." should be used only in lists with logical and predictable progression (1, 2, 3, etc.). Using "etc." to mean "and so on" at the end of an indefinite list suggests that you either do not know the information or are too lazy to include it all.

Following the trend toward anglicizing and avoiding Latin terms, the use of Latin abbreviations in documentation is also disappearing. For example, when citing a source by more than three authors, many writers now prefer to list all the authors or to use "and others" instead of "et al." after the name of the principal author. Also, the use of "ibid.," "loc. cit," and "op. cit." in footnotes and endnotes has generally been replaced by the use of parenthetical citations and a list of references.

The adage "when in Rome do as the Romans do" is good advice for writers when analyzing their discourse community and readers' expectations. Ironically, it implies that we should write in English. Nonetheless, some scholars and editors are still trying to resuscitate a "dead" language, and in some ways Latin is still very much alive, so technical writers must be able to recognize and use it suo loco--in its proper place.
Table 4. Latin abbreviations used in technical writing

Latin abbreviation Latin meaning English

ca. circa about
cf. confer compare
e.g. exempli gratia for example
et al. et alii and others
etc. et cetera and the rest
ibid. ibidem in the same place
i.e. id est that is
loc. cit. loco citato in the place cited
N.B. nota bene note well
op. cit. opere citato in the work cited
q.v. quod vide which see
viz. videlicet namely

Dr. Raymond F. Dolle, Associate Professor, Indiana State University, Dept. of English, Terre Haute, IN 47809.
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Title Annotation:Technical Writer; Latin language
Author:Dolle, Roy
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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