Tuesday, 3 April 2012

On for example, for instance

A correspondent writes to ask whether there is any difference between for example and for instance.

I think most people use these as stylistic alternatives, to avoid repetition, without any difference in meaning. The OED glosses for example as 'a typical instance' and for instance as 'for example'.

Differences...? For example is older - first recorded usage in 1447. For instance, 1657. And for example is much more frequent - about five times more so, in some corpora. Also, their distribution isn't identical. The expressions have developed further usages where the words don't easily substitute, such as I'll give you a for instance and by way of example.

But am I right to feel that related senses of the two words could influence the selection? The original use of instance (as in 'at the instance of', and related time-related words such as instant) conveys a sense of urgency or earnestness. Perhaps it's the phonaesthetics of the two words (the contrast in stress position and vowel height) which makes me think I would use for instance when I want to be a bit more emphatic and for example in a more leisurely exposition. I'd be interested to get some other opinions on the point.


Douglas Carnall said...

I agree with your conclusion that "for instance" has a more emphatic, brighter feel than the more pedestrian "for example."

For me, "for instance" also has a more singular feel: it would be strange to use it when a number of examples were to be subsequently enumerated, while "for example" suffers no such restriction.

I also suspect that "for instance" might be more used when speaking, and "for example" when writing.

I have no evidence for either contention, this is merely my gut reaction to your appeal for opinion.

I suppose some clever person might be able to write a set of regular expressions which might elucidate my second point on a corpus.

It is very easy, however to observe the soaring preference for "for example" over the course of the twentieth century: "http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=for+instance%2Cfor+example&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3"

Alex_linguist said...

I'm not sure but I think the following definition I found in Oxford Dictionaries Pro might help a bit. For example is defined there as "used to introduce something chosen as a typical case". I don't think "for instance" is used in the sense of "a typical case" but, rather, in the sense of "a specific type of a situation or event".

cf. Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms: instance "an individual person or thing brought forth in support or disproof of a general statement"; example "a typical, representative, or illustrative instance or case"

A number of dictionaries mention that "instance" is formal.

I also found an interesting discussion here http://bizwritingtip.com/?p=2744

Alex_linguist said...

Please ignore my previous post - I don't think it was relevant for the discussion here. The question is not about differences between "an example" and "an instance". It's about differences between "for example" and "for instance". I've checked a dozen of dictionaries, usage guides, opinion polls, forums, and it seems that it's a matter of personal choice.

There is only *one dictionary* that is somewhat clear on this matter, the Longman Exams Dictionary (2006). On page WH70, it says that "for instance means the same as for example, but it is slightly less formal". It also mentions that "in essays, for example is often used later on in a sentence, rather than at the beginning". Unfortunately, it doesn't say anything about the most common position of "for instance" in a sentence.

Alex_linguist said...

Actually, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (2009) also says that "for instance is slightly less formal than for example and is used more in spoken English" (p. 583).

Lucy said...

Oddly enough, a student asked about the difference just the other day.

Could it be that 'for example' might be used more, simply because 'example' is a more commonly used word and has more uses (I have no support for this, just speculating!), and, therefore, more recognisable or quicker to reach for for the majority.

What a lot of interesting stuff you've pulled out Alex_linguist, as well. Thanks!

I like the idea that 'for instance' is used more in speaking, Douglas -- slightly fewer vocal gymnastics, maybe?

DC said...

Yes, indeed, thanks. Some good points coming uo here.

Rick Sprague said...

I suspect "for instance" is more common in spoken corpora for phonotactic reasons ("f'rinstance"), leaving "for example" to be more commonly written and therefore regarded as more formal.

Personally, I'm inclined to think of an example as being more clearly or precisely demonstrative ("exemplary") of the quality, etc. being described, while an instance is less carefully chosen, and this carries over to the "for X" usage. But this distinction only applies to written usage or prepared speech; in dynamic speech one doesn't have time to search for the best example. That may also explain why "for instance" is more common in speech.

David Crosbie said...

Like Douglas Carnall, I intuitively take for instance to allude to something singular. There's some evidence-based support in my edition of the Collins COBUILD English Language Dictionary.

You use for example to introduce and emphasize something that illustrates the point you are making or that supports an argument, theory or opinion ...

You use for instance when you want to mention a particular situation, person, etc that illustrates the that subject you are discussing or the point that you are making ...

These are not just assertions, but the summaries of analyses of substantial corpuses of contemporary language data.

Each entry has several quotes from 'real' texts. To give a flavour:

This file contains a sheet of paper with a list of names, addresses and telephone numbers that are important to you. For example: doctor; dentist; vet; garage and so on.

I mean for instance a man like Tom

I could substitute for example in the latter, but I don't think I could substitute for instance in the former.

Additionally, for me for instance — or, as Rick Sprague pints out f'rinstance — can be a noun as in 'Well, give me a for instance'.

Marc Leavitt said...

I think the preceding examples represent an embarrassment of riches; for instance, the last commenter makes a very good case for the legitimizing weight of "for example" in writing.

Marion said...

"For instance" makes me think of an event, an action -- an instance of something happening, while "for example" seems to imply a thing, something less animate.
I might say "... my shoulder hurts during certain movements, for instance, when I raise my arm" but "... eat fruit and nuts for breakfast, for example, bananas and almonds".
But maybe that's just personal inclination.

Alex_linguist said...

Another interesting piece of information: The Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary (2005) marked "for example" as E and "for instance" as A. E(essential) stands for "words which everyone needs to know in order to communicate effectively. They are extremely common (usually over 400 occurrences per 10 million words". A(dvanced) stands for words which occur around 100-200 times per million words.

Alex_linguist said...

And the last bit from the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (1999).

The authors of the book argue (on p. 887) that in academic prose "for example" is used six times more than "for instance". On page 890, they say that in many cases of "for example" and "for instance" are interchangeable; and later, on the same page, "the use of 'for instance' appears more a matter of author style".

My own findings based on the BASE and BAWE corpora: "for instance" - BASE 113.4 per million vs. BAWE 44.9 per million; "for example" - BASE 407.3 per million vs. BAWE 215.9 per million.

Anonymous said...

Was just about to contribute when I saw Marion's comment. In a student's point of view, I would use 'for instance' when referring to a situational context, such that it is in /THAT/ instance/moment, however, 'for example' to imply (concrete) noun examples. I would also believe (albeit statistically proven) that 'for example' is more formal, because its more polysyllabic while 'for instance' is more suited for spoken language. We use it more often in face-to-face conversations too.

Alex_linguist said...

I just came across a very interesting example, and I'm not so sure how to interpret it. In a video message (1:20-1:30), Prince Charles was about to say "for instance" but stopped short of saying it, corrected himself (why?) and said "for example" instead. The link is http://youtu.be/8zIKrVtMgyc

DC said...

Yes, it's an interesting switch. Well spotted. His norm (heard later in the piece is evidently 'for example',so it's likely he had 'example' in his script. He was reading this from an autocue, but his eye movements show he was looking at a written script as well. He looks down just before the switch from 'instance' to 'example'. My guess is that he saw the point of comparison (the rain forests) in his written text and thought it was the only point of comparison, which would motivate 'instance'; but on returning to his autocue realized there was more than one such point, and that he should have said 'example'.

pierre said...

To me, "for instance" has to do with something that really happened in the physical world (I am clumsy. For instance, I dropped my sandwich last night.) and "for example" has to do with hypothetical situations or arguments (Everything has to have a cause. For example, eggs hatch only because their mother sits on them.) I know there's really no right or wrong about this, but that's how I've always come to believe.

Gunnar said...

Very interesting discussion for an English to Swedish translator. In Swedish with 20% less words than in English this luxury doesn't exist.

Deutsch √úbersetzer Berlin said...

Now finally I found out the differece too, that actually there is no difference. Thanks for the info provided in these comments!

Douglas Carnall said...

I've now had the opportunity to play with the British National Corpus (which incorporates transcribed speech) and have some hard data to back my intuition above:
You're welcome!
Best wishes,

DC said...

And the figures are well worth a look. Many thanks for the amplification.