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I would like to use the abbreviation cf. to mean see, like I do all the time when writing in French. E.g. "cf. figure 8" would mean "see/refer to/check out figure 8".

I read on Wikipedia that

While the use of cf. for "see" is widespread, The Chicago Manual of Style holds that it should not be used in this way but instead should only be used to mean "compare" or "see, by way of comparison". In some other languages, such as French and Italian, it is normal to use "cf." to mean "see".

The Chicago Manual of Style is "one of the most widely used and respected style guides in the United States". Does that mean that I should ban the use of "cf. figure 8", or is that some outdated rule that nobody cares anymore?

  • Do you even need to use "cf." at all? It would only be useful in highly formal writing. Is that where you want to use it? – Dangph Jul 12 '14 at 0:06
  • @Dangph Yes that would be for formal reports/articles (e.g. research articles). – Franck Dernoncourt Jul 12 '14 at 0:08
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    Is there any writing that is so formal that "See Figure 8" would be inappropriate? – Peter Shor Jul 12 '14 at 18:31
  • @PeterShor Not really I guess. I thought the English "cf." would have the same level of formality as in French, where it's very common (and >99% of the time means "see", not compare), we can almost use "cf." when speaking, but I've learnt through this question it's not :) That said, I do see "viz." quite often (e.g. in some MIT lecture notes), while I read in StoneyB's answer that it sounds old fart and that the MLA/APA/Chicago expressly deprecate the use “viz.”... so as a non-native it's hard to assess how wary I should be of some MLA/APA/Chicago rules, which was the root of my question. – Franck Dernoncourt Jul 14 '14 at 16:18
  • In English, if you want to refer to a figure, "See Figure 8" is almost always used. See (vide?) Ngram. (Cf. isn't on the Ngram because it's too rare before "fig" to appear on the chart. – Peter Shor Jul 14 '14 at 17:19
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In English and American academic usage cf. is used only with its original Latin meaning: conferre, “compare”. It usually points readers to arguments and opinions contrary to those just described, with the sense “but compare this to”.

At one time you might encounter vide for “see”, but that is hopelessly oldfashioned now. In fact, the major US academic style guides, MLA, APA and Chicago, now expressly deprecate the use of Latinisms like “cf.”, “vide supra”, “viz.” in the body of your text. I advise you to write “compare”, “see above”, “to wit”, even in your footnotes, lest you be taken to be a pretentious and superannuated old fart like

Yr most humble & obdt servt

Stoney B

  • +1 for the superscript scribal abbreviations and for putting "to wit" in the non-pretentious pile. – Tim Pederick Jul 12 '14 at 10:58
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A lot of people write according to the style of the Chicago Manual of Style. I do not know what other style books indicate, but cf. indeed literally means "compare." Not "see." It is not an outdated rule, since many people still use and abide by the Chicago Manual of Style. Many dictionaries also restrict the meaning of cf. to compare.

A lot of people confuse Latin abbreviations such as e.g. and i.e., so I am not surprised the use of cf. has broadened past its literal meaning. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. Language always changes. Language use always changes.

Some language purists may insist the cf. should only be used to mean "compare." You are free to choose your usage, only note that you are (1) writing in English, not French, and (2) technically, at least, the usage of cf. is still coinfined to "compare." If you wish to use it in a broader sense, you may incur the displeasure of some language martinets.

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