Latin Abbreviations: N.B. Meaning, Uses, Examples

A Dollar's Worth of Latin

Close-up of the Latin phrases on an American dollar bill
'Nota bene' is one of several Latin phrases that continue to be used in the modern world. Rouzes/Getty Images

"Now, pay attention!" That's the basic meaning of N.B. — the abbreviated form of the Latin phrase "nota bene" (literally, "note well"). N.B. still appears in some forms of academic writing as a way of steering readers' attention toward something particularly important.

Etymology

The phrase "nota bene" is Latin and may technically be a shortened form of the phrase "notate bene," which means "note well." The verb notare means "to note." Notate (and, for that matter, nota as well) is a specific conjugation in the imperative mood, indicating that it is a command, not a neutral description of action. The difference between notate and nota is simply a matter of singular versus plural: nota addresses one individual, while notate gives the same instruction to a group of two or more.

Bene is a common Latin adverb that simply means "well." While many Latin words evolved over time to become slightly different words in the various Romance languages (Italian, Spanish, French, and so on), bene is one that still exists: it has the same meaning in contemporary Italian.

Usage of Latin in the Modern Era

Two or three centuries ago, when classical Latin was widely taught in British and American schools, it wasn't unusual for Latin expressions to appear in English prose. For proof, pick up an American dollar bill and look at the Great Seal of the United States on the reverse (or "greenback") side.

There on the left, just above the floating eye and the unfinished pyramid, is the Latin phrase "Annuit Coeptis," loosely translated as "Providence has approved our undertaking." At the base of the pyramid is "MDCCLXXVI" (1776 in Roman numerals) and below that the motto "Novus Ordo Seclorum" ("a new order of the ages"). To the right, on the ribbon in the eagle's beak, is the country's first motto, "E Pluribus Unum," or "one out of many."

Now that's a lot of Latin for a buck! But keep in mind that the Great Seal was approved by Congress way back in 1782. Since 1956 the official motto of the U.S. has been "In God We Trust" — in English.

As the Romans used to say, "Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis" (Times change, and we change with them).

Nowadays, with a few exceptions (such as A.D., a.m., and p.m.), abbreviations for Latin words and phrases have become rare in ordinary writing. And so our advice regarding most Latin abbreviations (including e.g., etc., et al., and i.e.) is generally to avoid using them when an English word or phrase would do just as well. If you must use them (say in footnotes, bibliographies, and technical lists), consider these guidelines on how to tell them apart and use them correctly.

Examples of Usage

Nota bene is used, in the modern world at least, most frequently in legal writing to draw attention to something specific. It also shows up in academia from time to time, although the simpler, English indicator "note" has largely replaced nota bene or n.b. in these instances. In more recent writing, "n.b." is the most common marking, but it actually was not used at all in the medieval era. Medieval texts have several different nota bene marks: "DM" (which stands for dignum memoria, another Latin phrase that translates as "worth remembering"), various anagrams of the word "nota," or, most amusingly, tiny drawings of a hand (formally called a "manicule" or "index") pointing at the section that needs specific attention.

Outside of legal and technical writing, n.b. is fairly archaic in contemporary English writing. You might still come across formal writing or directions that use it:

  • You will have 60 minutes to complete the test. N.B.: A single 3x5 index card of notes may be used during this exam.
  • The train will depart at 10 a.m. on February 2. N.b: Tickets cannot be exchanged or refunded.

In general, however, when modern writers want their readers to pay close attention to something or not miss an important piece of information, they will use a different phrase. Popular substitutes include "please note" or "important," which still place emphasis on the necessarily information without use of a semi-archaic Latin abbreviation.