What Is Illustration in Rhetoric and Composition?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Woman illustrating a point to colleagues

In rhetoric and composition, illustration refers to an example or anecdote used to explain, clarify, or justify a point. Adjective: illustrative. From the Latin, "make bright." Pronounced [IL-eh-STRAY-shun].

"In writing an illustration," says James A. Reinking, "we try to show readers something truthful about our understanding of the world. They wouldn't read what we have written if they suspected we were unusually careless in our thinking, or if they thought we were trying to deceive them by skewing our evidence or distorting our examples" (Strategies for Successful Writing, 2007).

Examples and Observations of Illustration

The Function of Illustration

  • "Illustration is the use of examples to make ideas more concrete and to make generalizations more specific and detailed. Examples enable writers not just to tell but to show what they mean. For example, an essay about recently developed alternative sources of energy becomes clear and interesting with the use of some examples--say, solar energy or the heat from the earth's core. The more specific the example, the more effective it is. Along with general statements about solar energy, the writer might offer several examples of how the home building industry is installing solar collectors instead of conventional hot water systems, or building solar greenhouses to replace conventional central heating."

Joe Queenan's Illustrations: "You Can't Fight City Hall"

  • ​"Books, I think, are dead. You cannot fight the zeitgeist and you cannot fight corporations.The genius of corporations is that they force you to make decisions about how you will live your life and then beguile you into thinking that it was all your choice. Compact discs are not superior to vinyl. E-readers are not superior to books. Lite beer is not the great leap forward. A society that replaces seven-tier wedding cakes with lo-fat cupcakes is a society that deserves to be put to the sword. But you can’t fight City Hall."

Tom Destry's Illustration: Stick to Your Own Trade

  • "Nobody's gonna set themselves up above the law around here, you understand? I got something to say to you. I think maybe I could illustrate it a little better if I told you a story. I used to have a friend that was an opry singer. Then he went into the cement business, and one day he fell into the cement. And now he's the cornerstone of the post office in St. Louis, Missouri. He should have stuck to his own trade. You better stick to yours."

Don Murray's Illustration of Writers as Dawdlers

  • "Even the most productive writers are expert dawdlers, doers of unnecessary errands, seekers of interruptions--trials to their wives or husbands, associates, and themselves. They sharpen well-pointed pencils and go out to buy more blank paper, rearrange offices, wander through libraries and bookstores, chop wood, walk, drive, make unnecessary calls, nap, daydream, and try not 'consciously' to think about what they are going to write so they can think subconsciously about it."

T.H. Huxley's Illustration of the Word Fish

  • "If any one wants to exemplify the meaning of the word 'fish,' he cannot choose a better animal than a herring. The body, tapering to each end, is covered with thin, flexible scales, which are very easily rubbed off. The taper head, with its underhung jaw, is smooth and scaleless on the top; the large eye is partly covered by two folds of transparent skin, like eyelids--only immovable and with the slit between them vertical instead of horizontal; the cleft behind the gill cover is very wide, and, when the cover is raised, the large red gills which lie beneath it are freely exposed. The rounded back bears the single moderately long dorsal fin about its middle."

Charles Darwin's Illustration: "All True Classification Is Genealogical"

  • "It may be worth while to illustrate this view of classification, by taking the case of languages. If we possessed a perfect pedigree of mankind, a genealogical arrangement of the races of man would afford the best classification of the various languages now spoken throughout the world; and if all extinct languages, and all intermediate and slowly changing dialects, were to be included, such an arrangement would be the only possible one. Yet it might be that some ancient languages had altered very little and had given rise to few new languages, whilst others (owing to the spreading and subsequent isolation and states of civilisation of the several races, descended from a common race) had altered much, and had given rise to many new languages and dialects. The various degrees of difference in the languages from the same stock, would have to be expressed by groups subordinate to groups; but the proper or even only possible arrangement would still be genealogical; and this would be strictly natural, as it would connect together all languages, extinct and modern, by the closest affinities, and would give the filiation and origin of each tongue."


    Alfred Rosa and Paul Eschholz, Models for Writers. St. Martin's Press, 1982

    Joe Queenan, interviewed by John Williams in "‘Books, I Think, Are Dead’: Joe Queenan Talks About ‘One for the Books.’" The New York Times, November 30, 2012

    James Stewart as Tom Destry in Destry Rides Again, 1939

    Donald M. Murray, "Write Before Writing." The Essential Don Murray: Lessons from America's Greatest Writing Teacher. Heinemann, 2009

    Thomas Henry Huxley, "The Herring." Lecture delivered at the National Fishery Exhibition, Norwich, April 21, 1881

    Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, 1859