What Is Example?
Examples illustrate ideas, issues, situations, theories,
events, or personality types. Examples can be used to establish
definitions or support persuasive arguments. A verb
can be defined as a word expressing action or a state
of being and illustrated with examples -- run, buy,
create, is, were. An argument against capital punishment
can be supported by examples of innocent people being sent
to death row.
The Goal Of Example
The most common error students make in trying to write example
is confusing example with description or narration. A description
might characterize an individual. A narration might relate
a event. But an example serves to illustrate something larger.
The individual must serve as a symbol or representative of
other people, an idea, a problem. Similarly, an event must
signify something greater. The story of a drunk driver illustrates
a social problem. The failure of a government program signals
a crisis in national policy.
To make sure that you are writing example and not description
or narration examine your thesis. The goal of your paper should
be to illustrate a larger issue:
|description of a drug addict
||failure of traditional treatment
|a cyberstalking incident
||dangers of new technology
|story of a friend starting a business
|three televisions shows
||images of women in media
|church food pantry
|recent flood or tornado
||power of nature
|a new shopping mall
To make sure that your paper does not simply become a description
or a narrative, ask yourself some key questions:
- What is the larger significance of my subject?
- What does it represent?
- What does it signify?
Purpose: To Inform Or Persuade
Examples can be used to explain complex or abstract ideas
Career-ending disabilities are those that prevent individuals
from pursuing their primary occupation while not interfering
in any significant way to their ability to function socially.
A professional athlete who suffers a knee injury that
terminates his career while not limiting his ability to walk
or climb stairs or an opera singer who undergoes throat surgery
that allows her to speak but no longer sing would be examples.
- Informative examples should be accurate and concrete.
Because one situation may be misleading or fail to illustrate
every aspect of the larger issue, it may be advisable to
use more than a single example.
- In selecting examples, consider the perceptual world of
your readers. High school students may not recognize examples
based on people or events that took place twenty years ago.
- Avoid using controversial figures or events. Because people
have different attitudes about film stars, politicians,
or other celebrities, they may make poor examples. Not everyone
will regard a protester as an example of heroism. Similarly,
an event that sparks positive and negative reactions will
limit its use an objective example.
Examples can also be used to support a persuasive argument:
Nancy Price, a 28 year old accountant, left her
job at Price Waterhouse to daytrade at Cable-Wilson. In less
than a month she lost her entire portfolio. Hector Rodriquez,
a retired Marine, began daytrading at Cable-Wilson shortly
after Thanksgiving. Before Christmas, he had lost $105,000.
Jolene Baker, a single mother, daytraded her way from a suburban
colonial home to a two room apartment in three months.
These are just three people who have fallen victim to Cable-Wilson's
misleading advertising and irresponsible training program.
Cable-Wilson is one of the most unethical daytrading firms
in the Bay Area.
- Examples can provide powerful support for an argument
because they can be used to introduce a human element, a
- Examples alone, however, do not usually provide sufficient
proof for most persuasive arguments. Detailing the plight
of three homeless people with Ivy League degrees does not
make a strong case that a college education is useless.
You cannot argue that smoking is not dangerous by pointing
out examples of heavy smokers who have lived past eighty.
Exercise critical thinking and realize the limitation
of examples. Persuasive examples should be balanced with
other forms of evidence such as statistics, surveys, or
Selecting Topics For Example Essays
If your instructor does not assign a topic, you might consider
one of the following items. Select a topic, then explore its
possibilities using one or more prewriting strategies:
- a person who symbolizes a social trend
- a relative operating a home business
- items representing nostalgia
- the popularity of cigars and fountain pens
- examples of unequal justice
- three celebrities given light sentences for drugs
- a trend illustrating changing values
- the increase or decrease in campus protests
You can explore a topic for an example paper by starting
with a general subject or a specific example:
Start With A General Subject
Consider an issue, social problem, dilemma, trend, or development.
Think of recent items in the news or topics you have studied
in other courses.
- The problem of treating the mentally ill
- The cost of caring for the elderly
- Criminal uses of the Internet
- The conflict of church and state
- The rise of road rage
- Women entrepreneurs
- Effect of domestic violence on children
After selecting a topic, write a brief description or jot
down the main attributes or characteristics of the issue.
Then select one or more examples that clearly illustrate your
- a homeless man in your neighborhood who keeps wandering
away from a halfway house for the mentally ill
- your aunt's difficulty in securing care for your grandmother
recovering from a stroke
- con artists who used a web site to collect credit card
- a local church homeless shelter shut down by the city
because it violated zoning ordinances
- two recent road rage incidents reported in the local newspaper
- a friend's mother who operates a successful home-based
- problems you observed working with two abused children
in a volunteer program
Start With A Specific Person, Place, Item, Or Event
Think of a memorable person you have met. What did this person
represent? Did he or she symbolize a certain value or characteristic?
Was this individual a positive or negative influence in your
life, in the lives of others? Was this person a good or bad
example of a teacher, coach, employer, parent, child, driver,
or business owner?
Consider a place you are familiar with. What does a cigar
bar symbolize? Is your favorite night spot an example of a
new trend or a passing fad? Is your nephew's daycare center
an example of the right or wrong way to care for children?
Is the new mall an example of modern architecture, of suburban
sprawl, of environmental landscaping, of gross materialism?
Select a favorite item. What does the newest SUV symbolize?
Is your new CD player an example of new technology? Does your
grandfather's Zippo lighter represent an artifact from an
earlier age? How does a current fashion item symbolize the
way women currently see themselves?
Review an event you witnessed. Could a road rage incident
be an example of people's growing willingness to use violence?
Did the argument you witnessed provide an example of how men
and women fail to communicate? Did a recent interchange in
a chat room reveal something about cyberspace?
Strategies For Improving Example
Include A Strong Thesis Statement
The distinction between a description or narration and an
example essay relies on the reader's ability to draw a connection
between the subject and the larger issue it is supposed to
illustrate. A strong thesis statement can clearly establish
the significance of your subject:
Southtown Mall represents the unbridled greed of twenty-first
Mel Thomas is an example of that dying breed of athlete
-- someone who plays for the love of the game and not the
Price Jones, Chris Bain, and Valerie Conrad are examples
of a new breed of entrepreneurs.
Support Examples With Other Forms Of Evidence
Examples can dramatize an issue by telling a compelling
story. However, because individual situations can be dismissed
as isolated incidents, it may be necessary to supply additional
Abandoned by his parents at twelve, Pete Kelly wandered
through a series of foster homes and halfway houses before
joining a gang. Gang membership in this city has risen from
500 two years ago to just over 1500. Over half of today's
gang members spent at least two years in foster care.
Distinguish Between Relevant And Incidental Aspects
Examples should illustrate a general situation. Often the
specific items you use as examples may have elements that
are personal or accidental. If you are presenting a test case
as an example, indicate those elements that are not representative:
Nancy Hughes is an example of a growing number of retired
Americans reentering the workforce. Unlike most of the 1.5
million new hires over the age of 55, she is returning to
work to pursue new interests rather than supplement her retirement
BEFORE SUBMITTING YOUR PAPER, REVIEW THESE POINTS.
- Is your paper really an example essay or is it merely
a description of a person or the story of an event? Does
it clearly illustrate a larger issue?
- Will readers relate to the example or examples you present?
Do you have to include any background information or address
- Do you provide other forms of support -- facts, expert
- Is the thesis clearly stated? Will readers connect the
example to the larger issue it illustrates?
- READ YOUR PAPER ALOUD. How does it sound? Are there unnecessary
details or awkward statements? Are there clear transitions
between major points?