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  Home > InfoWrite > Modes of Exposition > Example

InfoTrac College Edition


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:

Immediate Topic Illustration of
description of a drug addict failure of traditional treatment
a cyberstalking incident dangers of new technology
story of a friend starting a business entrepreneuership
three televisions shows images of women in media
church food pantry community responsibility
recent flood or tornado power of nature
a new shopping mall American materialism

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 or concepts:

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 brief narrative.
  • 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 expert testimony.

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

Getting Started

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 larger issue:

  • 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 numbers
  • 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 enterprise
  • problems you observed working with two abused children in a volunteer program

Start With A Specific Person, Place, Item, Or Event

A Person
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?

A Place
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?

An Item
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?

An Event
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 century materialism.

Mel Thomas is an example of that dying breed of athlete -- someone who plays for the love of the game and not the paycheck.

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 data:

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 income.

Example Checklist


  1. 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?
  2. Will readers relate to the example or examples you present? Do you have to include any background information or address any misconceptions?
  3. Do you provide other forms of support -- facts, expert testimony, statistics?
  4. Is the thesis clearly stated? Will readers connect the example to the larger issue it illustrates?
  5. READ YOUR PAPER ALOUD. How does it sound? Are there unnecessary details or awkward statements? Are there clear transitions between major points?

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From The Sundance Reader, Third Edition, Web Site by Mark Connelly.