The Grammarphobia Blog

“For example” vs. “for instance”

Q: Is there any difference between “for example” and “for instance”? I use them without distinction, mainly to avoid repetition, but I guess that some differences in meaning or style may exist.

A: There’s no real difference between “for example” and “for instance,” though the second phrase may be slightly more informal.

One definition of the noun “example” is “a typical instance,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And one definition of the noun “instance” is “an example.”

The phrase “for example” was first recorded in 1584, and “for instance” in 1657, according to published references in the dictionary.

The OED doesn’t specifically define the phrase “for example, but it says “for instance” means “for example, as an instance of what has been said.”

The abbreviation “e.g.” (for the Latin exempli gratia) means “for example” (literally, “for the sake of example”), but it can be used in place of “for instance” as well.

By the way, we’ve said this before but it deserves repeating: don’t confuse the abbreviation “e.g.” for “i.e.,” which means “that is.” Both abbreviations came into use in English in the 17th century, and they’re often used incorrectly.

Here’s how Pat explains them in her grammar and usage guide Woe Is I (revised 3rd ed.):

“Go ahead. Be pretentious in your writing and toss in an occasional e.g. or i.e. But don’t mix them up. Clumsy inaccuracy can spoil that air of authority you’re shooting for. E.g. is short for a Latin term, exempli gratia, that means ‘for example.’ Kirk and Spock had much in common, e.g., their interest in astronomy and their concern for the ship and its crew. The more specific term i.e., short for the Latin id est, means ‘that is.’ But they had one obvious difference, i.e., their ears. Both e.g. and i.e. must have commas before and after (unless, of course, they’re preceded by a dash or a parenthesis).”

Check out our books about the English language