Why “For Example” Is A Bad Way Of Explaining Things

When our math teacher in high school introduced a new topic, what happened next would always follow the same pattern:

  1. She explains the Pythagorean theorem.
  2. Nobody gets it.
  3. She makes an example.
  4. Some people get it.
  5. The rest of the class goes “Can you make another example? Pleeeeeeeaaaaase?”

Steps 3-5 of the pattern would then repeat until the majority of the class understood the new concept and the “More examples!” screams slowly died down. Then we moved on.

Since I was often part of the group who got the gist the first go around, I’d be bored for the remainder of the lesson, waiting for everyone else to get the joke so we could continue. In the meantime, instead of listening, I tried to come up with more of my own examples.

I didn’t know it back then, but as it turns out, I was doing something right.


When I started this blog, I just began to type. I had no idea what I was going to say. All I knew was: “I have to say something.”

Ask most writers about their first few pieces and they’ll tell you they’re embarrassed by them. Looking back on my first post now, I honestly have to say: I’m not. Sure, it’s not my best work, but I still like it way better than some of the things I’ve written afterwards.

Some time ago, I realized why that is: it was unencumbered. Uninfluenced by the plethora of bullshit writing advice that floats through the endless vastnesses of the web. Later, as I started to learn more about writing as a craft, I began to take other people’s writing advice.

Bad idea.

One particular piece of advice I really took to heart was this one:

“Use ‘for example’ a lot.”

If you’ve read more than two posts of mine, you know this is true. I loooooooove giving examples. A quick Google search reveals I’ve used the phrase in 303 out of 371 posts on Four Minute Books. That’s over 80%.

For Example Stats

Considering how much time I’ve spent sitting in classrooms and coming up with them, that’s unsurprising. But this is:

“For example” is a terrible way of explaining things.

When you use “for example” to make something clearer to another person, you’re not really doing them a favor. The reason for this is very similar to what makes the difference between a good writer and a great one:

You don’t become a great writer by taking writing advice. You become a great writer by reading writers you admire, thinking about why you admire them, and then emulating them.

One of the writers I aspire to is Tim Urban from Wait But Why. And it was reading the last post in his 4-part series about Elon Musk, called The Cook and the Chef, which nudged me towards this insight.

To understand it, let’s return to the classroom from earlier.

Why Good Teachers Are Bad Teachers

Our math teacher was a pushover. Sadly, she was about as authoritative as a sponge. As a consequence, she also gave in to our every request, 100% of the time. When we asked her for more examples, she gave us more examples.

Of course not all of our teachers did this, especially the older ones. A physics teacher, who was about to retire in a few years, would pretty much not give a damn. He’d just explain, maybe give a use case, then move on.

The general consensus among our class was the following: he sucked and she was awesome. To us, those teachers, who gave us more examples, felt like they did a better job at explaining.

For Example Spectrum

Interestingly, when I asked some of my classmates which teacher they learned from the most years later, many of them referred to the physics teacher. Nobody said our math teacher’s name.

That’s because giving us many examples taught us, well, many examples. What it didn’t teach us was how to think about the underlying mechanism and come to our own conclusions.

The Wait But Why post about Musk compares two ways of reasoning to make decisions. One is reasoning by analogy, where you base your conclusion on what’s been done before and what others tell you. That’s the default mode most people make decisions by. The alternative, which few people (including Elon Musk) use, is to reason from first principles: you look at the fundamentals of what you know is true and then choose what to do, no matter what the rest of the world thinks about it, or whether it’s a proven course of action.

The same is true about learning. You can learn by analogy, or you can learn from “first experiences.”

When I was dreaming up my own examples in class, I was subconsciously learning to apply the principle at hand. After all, if I could come up with my own, specific use cases, I could transfer the idea to pretty much anything. Instead of building up an inventory of examples, I made my own experiences and learned from those.

What our “good” math teacher did was show us that (13+7)2=169+2137+49. What our physics teacher would’ve taught us is that (a+b)2=a2+2*ab+b2. One you can memorize and hope it’ll appear exactly the same in the test. The other you can use for life.

The less examples our physics teacher made, the more he helped us to actually learn something, because he forced us to think about what was going on.

For Example Spectrum 2

Circling back to writing, the more examples a writer gives you while explaining, the easier it might be for you to remember the lesson. However, it’ll be harder to apply it in practice, because all you know is that one specific example.

Unless you’re writing an instruction manual for assembling a wardrobe or maintaining a complex piece of machinery, doling out specific A -> B cases of what you’re trying to teach won’t do much good.

That’s why “for example” is probably the most popular phrase in the ever-growing world of “how-to” posts (this blog being no exclusion).

But as a writer, my goal isn’t to tell you what to do. You and I are different. What has worked for me might not work for you. I want to make you think, so you can decide what to do yourself.

So no more examples.

Unless…

“For Example” Is A GREAT Way Of Learning Things

As bad as “for example” is a tool to explain things, it remains a good way of learning things – as long as you come up with your own examples.

Remembering examples other people give you is the equivalent of taking on an opinion, simply because it’s handed to you. It’s easier, quicker and it feels like progress.

But when you come up with your own examples, you’re forming your first experiences with a new idea. Better yet, once you can come up with multiple examples that fit the rule and make sense, you know you’ve really understood the underlying concept.

This leaves us with two takeaways:

  1. Don’t use “for example” to explain things to others. If anything, force people to come up with their own, for example by letting them fill in the blank: “For example _____________________.” See what I did there? 😉
  2. The next time you see “for example” somewhere, don’t just read on after seeing the example. Take a second to pause and think of another one on your own.

  • Richard Davies

    I think it depends on what you’re teaching/learning. I’ll give you an example 🙂 With languages, I find learning “example sentences” a better way of learning that learning discrete vocab and grammar rules. “Quiero una cerveza fria” = “I want a cold beer” and the example teaches me the correct conjugation of querer in first person singular, that I don’t need to include the pronoun in the Spanish version, that there is agreement between the article, noun and adjective and that they are all feminine and end in “a” as well as all the vocabulary and that the adjective comes after the noun. That’s a lot of information linked to a four word example! It’s also a lot easier to remember than each of those rules independently…

    • Richard, I agree with you. Someone on Medium raised a great point about this as well. I think it depends on a.) what you’re teaching and b.) how much critical thinking that requires. A good idea pointed out to me was to use a hybrid – as a teacher give one example, then ask students to come up with another, thus shifting the balance towards own examples but leading the way there 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  • airshowfan

    I disagree 100%. Based on my personal experience:

    IMO, there are two kinds of example-collecting in the classroom. There’s “example-collecting for future reference” and there’s
    “example-collecting for pattern-finding”.

    “Example-collecting for future reference” means hoarding a large stockpile of problems that, in order to be solved, require a certain principle or algorithm (such as the Pythagorean theorem, or x=vt+½at², or integration by parts, or whatever). You hold on to those specimens hoping that any future problems, e.g. on the homework, will parallel one of the examples in your collection, and so the problem in the assignment can hopefully be solved by copying the example but changing the values of the numbers. This is bad, you don’t really learn… and I suspect that this is what the article here is about.

    But “example-collecting for pattern-finding” is great and leads to learning. Maybe you see one example and you get a rough idea of how the principle is applied but you’re not sure whether this one number came from this step or from that step, or maybe you’re not sure whether this step influences that step or if this step was a guess based on the expected outcome of that step in the future. So you ask for another example. A-ha! Now it’s clear where that number came from. Now it’s clear that the input for this step was a guess about the outcome of the next step. So now I wonder what would happen if that guess was way off. Then you want to start experimenting (i.e. making your own examples).

    Let me give you an example ;] Say that you’re learning to multiply numbers with two digits: AB times CD (where “AB” is B+10xA). I show you

    12×34=8+40+60+300=408

    And you go “I think I see what’s happening here. 4×2 + 4×10 + 30×2 + 30×10, right? Show me another example!”. I show you

    56×78=48+400+420+3500=4368

    Now you go “Yep, I got it now. ABxCD=DxB+DxAx10+Cx10xB+Cx10xAx10”.

    And if I show you some examples multiplying numbers that have more digits, you can probably generalize the idea that the product is the sum of each digit (times its corresponding power of 10) in one number times each digit (times its corresponding power of 10) in the other number. Maybe it occurs to you to build a 2D table. And maybe you could group the digit multiplications by the power of 10 (“number of zeroes”) that each one ends up with, and add the digit multiples together before slapping all the zeroes onto them…

    This conversation leads into another argument: It seems like most teaching (in the maths / Newtonian physics / engineering fields, until you get to college) follows the outline “Here is the formula. Let’s do some examples, then you do some exercises”. But wouldn’t it be more fun and interesting and educational (i.e. Wouldn’t we get better learning) if instead we did “Here is a problem. How do you solve it? I don’t know. Try something. Can you get even an approximate answer? Can you break it down into smaller pieces that you can solve? Can you think of an experiment in the real world where you could gather data to learn how to solve this general kind of problem? Try drawing a picture of the problem, does that help?”. That way, the students could find the analysis technique themselves, or at least most of its pieces. They would then “own” it more thoroughly, and have a real appreciation for the importance of each step, for why it’s there. I won’t repeat all of “Lockhart’s Lament”, but I agree with what Paul Lockhart says. What’s the formula for the area of a triangle, or the area of a circle? A student that finds the formula (or a crude and slightly incorrect approximation of the formula, which then gets corrected) will probably remember and apply it better than a student who is simply told the formula at the very start and then led through examples/exercises. Right?

    • Wait. You said 100%. But the “examples-for-future-reference” part does agree with me. That doesn’t add up 😉 Messing with ya!

      Thanks for taking such deep thought on this. I should add an extra step in there, because through the discussions this article sparked I think a hybrid model is what I’ll use going forward: give one example, then ask students for more to see if they’ve understood the principle.

      However, what I love most of what you said is this:

      ““Here is a problem. How do you solve it? I don’t know. Try something. Can you get even an approximate answer? Can you break it down into smaller pieces that you can solve? Can you think of an experiment in the real world where you could gather data to learn how to solve this general kind of problem? Try drawing a picture of the problem, does that help?””

      This is co-learning. The teacher going through the learning process alongside the student. And really, that’s what’s in most combined, well-working human efforts in life. If school simulated that, it’d likely do a much better job.

      Thanks for your point of view, I appreciate it!

      • airshowfan

        Ok, fine, I guess I disagree 50% 😉

        “If school simulated that, it’d likely do a much better job.”

        I think we can all agree on that!

        Thank you very much for the thought-provoking article 🙂

        • Thanks for sharing your opinion on it, it’ll help me give a more complete picture next time 🙂