Example in Rhetoric

Specific examples can be used to clarify ideas and help support general propositions. "It is a trite but true observation," said novelist Henry Fielding, "that examples work more forcibly on the mind than precepts" (Joseph Andrews, 1742)
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In rhetoric, an example is a particular instance that serves to illustrate a principle or support a claim. It is also known as exemplum and is related to example (composition).

Examples that serve a persuasive purpose are a type of inductive reasoning. As Phillip Sipiora points out in his discussion of rhetorical kairos, "[T]he concept of the 'example' is itself a critical dimension of the rhetorical logical appeal, or argument (at least in Aristotle's theory of rhetoric, the most comprehensive extant treatment of classical rhetoric)" ("Kairos: The Rhetoric of Time and Timing in the New Testament." Rhetoric and Kairos, 2002).
"Examples are supplementary evidence," notes Stephen Pender. "As a weaker form of persuasion, examples are employed only when enthymemes are unsuited to an argument or audience... Yet examples have their place in reasoning" (Rhetoric and Medicine in Early Modern Europe, 2012).


  • "Our whole economy hangs precariously on the assumption that the higher you go the better off you are, and that unless more stuff is produced in 1958 than was produced in 1957, more deer killed, more automatic dishwashers installed, more out-of-staters coming into the state, more heads aching so they can get the fast fast fast relief from a pill, more automobiles sold, you are headed for trouble."
    (E.B. White, "A Report in January." Essays of E.B. White. Harper, 1977)
  • "There were aspects of living in that house overlooking the Pacific that he failed to mention--he failed to mention for example the way the wind would blow down through the canyons and whine under the eaves and lift the roof and coat the white walls with ash from the fireplace, he failed to mention for example the king snakes that dropped from the rafters of the garage into the open Corvette I parked below, he failed to mention for example that king snakes were locally considered a valuable asset because the presence of a king snake in your Corvette was understood to mean (I was never convinced that it did) that you didn’t have a rattlesnake in your Corvette . . .."
    (Joan Didion, Blue Nights. Alfred A. Knopf, 2011

Aristotle on Factual and Fictitious Examples

"Aristotle divides examples into factual and fictitious, the former relying on historical experience and the latter invented to support the argument... Holding together the categories of example... are two major ideas: first, that concrete experience, especially when it is familiar to an audience, is highly significant; and, second, that things (both material objects and events) repeat themselves."

(John D. Lyons, "Exemplum," in Encyclopedia of Rhetoric. Oxford University Press, 2001)

Persuasive Examples

"As Quintilian defined it, an example adduces 'some past action real or assumed which may serve to persuade the audience of the truth of the point which we are trying to make' (V xi 6). If, for instance, a rhetor wants to convince her neighbor that he should keep his dog inside the fence that surrounds his property, she can remind him of a past instance when another neighbor's dog, running free, spread another neighbor's garbage all over both front yards. Rhetorical examples should not be confused with the particulars used in inductive reasoning. This rhetor has no interest in generalizing about all dogs in the neighborhood but is only concerned to compare the actual behavior of one dog running free to the probable behavior of another in similar circumstances...
"Rhetorical examples are persuasive because they are specific. Because they are specific, they call up vivid memories of something the audience has experienced."

(S. Crowley and D. Hawhee, Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. Pearson, 2004)

Further Reading