Why isn't the use of "etc." considered appropriate in formal writing?

The abbreviation "etc." is a shortened form of the Latin phrase et cetera meaning "and so forth." Most writing texts suggest that the phrase be avoided. In Writing Research Papers for example, James D. Lester says simply "Avoid using this term, which means 'and so forth,' by adding extra items to the list or by writing "and so forth." As a result, students often ask, "Why?"

The answer is rather simple; plain English is preferred and it is quite often misused. Many writers use it either consciously or unconsciously, as a way of implying that they know more but would rather not include it all. An overly simplistic example of this would be to describe the flag in the following manner:

The flag of the United States consists of a number of colors: red, white, blue, etc.

Clearly, there are no additional colors. If there are, infact, additional items use plain English as in the following example:

In the Periodic Table of the Elements, each element has a specific atomic weight: hydrogen has an atomic weight of 1, helium 2, lithium 3, and so forth.

This is a correct use of the phrase as there are currently 103 elements and the writer is clearly not going to name them all. Most uses of "etc." in student writing fall somewhere between the above examples.

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