Illustration

Citing examples is an easy way to support a generalization:

Some of those writers who most admired technology—Whitman, Henry Adams, and H. G. Wells, for example—also feared it greatly. Samuel C. Flormart

But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.

George Orwell

Illustrations show that you are not talking through your hat. Thus Florman gives us names, grounding his assertion in facts and enabling us to check that assertion against our own knowledge. Illustrations have a second virtue: they anchor an abstraction in particulars, translating difficult ideas into everyday terms. This is what Orwell does.

Brief examples like those by Florman and Orwell do not make paragraphs, of course. But examples can be extended to provide the substance of an entire paragraph. Sometimes the paragraph consists of a single example worked out in detail:

Some of the most abstract terms in the language are really faded metaphors. On examination it turns out that an earlier meaning, now forgotten, is often lively in the extreme. Hence an obvious means of invigorating our jejune vocabulary is to fall back on those lively older meanings. True enough, the average speaker does not know that they ever existed. He is not reminded that "express" once meant, literally and physically, "to press out." But he can learn it instantaneously from a context. It may be that only the archaic literal sense is intended, or it may be that both the physical and the metaphorical are to be grasped simultaneously. In any event, the impact of the divergent use on an attentive reader forces him to a new experience of the word, without sacrificing comprehension. An example of the use of "express" in this revivified fashion will be found in Emily Dickinson:

Essential

The Attar from the Rose Be not expressed by is the gift Margaret Schlauch

On the other hand a paragraph may consist of a number of brief examples, as in this passage about the change in modern modes of eating and drinking:

As far as the home is concerned, the biggest change in what P. C. Wodehouse called "browsing and sluicing" is probably not the decline in huge, formal meals, or shorter menus, but the odd form our food is in nowadays when we buy it. Coffee comes as a powder. Fish arrives as a frozen rectangular block. Soup, stiff with preservatives, comes in a tin or as a powder. Potatoes no longer wear their jackets but arrive pale and naked in an impenetrable plastic bag. Embryonic mashed potato comes in little dry lumps, like cattle-feed pellets. Bread, untouched by human baker, arrives wrapped and sliced in a soft lump, the "crust" seemingly sprayed on. Beer, urged upward by gas, emerges from a steel dustbin. Frank Muir

Whether you use one example or several, be sure your reader will take them for what they are. Often it is advisable explicitly to introduce an illustration by some such phrase as for example, for instance, as a case in point or, a bit more subtly, say, thus, consider. Vary these expressions; do not introduce every illustration with for example. Nor is it necessary always to place the phrase in the opening position. for instance or for example is equally effective set between subject and verb, where it is still near the beginning but seems less mechanical.

When the illustrative function of a detail is obvious, you can safely dispense with an introductory phrase. Orwell does not write, "For example, a man may take to drink ..."; nor does Muir label his instances of the oddity of modern food. They depend on the reader's common sense. No infallible rule tells you when for example is superfluous and when its absence will confuse a reader. You must try to imagine yourself in the reader's place. If an illustration seems even a bit bewildering without an introductory word or phrase, put one in.

Introduced or not, examples are most effective when they are specific. In Muir's paragraph the abstract expression odd form our food is in" is given heft and shape by "frozen rectangular block," "pale and naked in an impenetrable plastic bag," "little dry lumps, like cattle-feed pellets."

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