Posted by: Jack Henry | September 13, 2019

Editor’s Corner: Example vs. Sample

Lately, I seem to be seeing and correcting a lot of misuses of the words example and sample. I started thinking that maybe this was one of those things I was just getting “attitudish” about and wielding the red pen without great responsibility. But rather than flogging myself with a horsehair whip, I decided I would find out why people might mistake these two words, and if successful, I would provide some additional information about the couplet.

First, let me give you some condensed definitions from Merriam-Webster, which I think do a good job explaining the differences:

example (noun)

1: a particular single item, fact, incident, or aspect that may be taken fairly as typical or representative of all of a group or type

2: a pattern or representative action or series of actions tending or intended to induce one to imitate or emulate

3: an instance (such as a problem to be solved) serving to illustrate a rule or precept or to act as an exercise in the application of the rules of any study or branch of science

sample (noun)

1a: a representative portion of a whole: a small segment or quantity taken as evidence of the quality or character of the entire group or lot

2: a unit of merchandise used for demonstration or display<floor sample>

3: one that serves to illustrate the full range or a part (as of a population) used for purposes of investigating and comparing properties

4: an excerpt from a recording (such as a popular song by another performer) that is used in a musical composition, recording, or performance

Second, there are two reasons you might get them a bit confused. The first reason is the they are both originally from the same root word. According to the article, Difference Between Example and Sample:

The modern word “example” is a result of three evolutions. It first emerged from the Latin “exemplum,” then evolved into the Old French “example” and “essaumple,” to finally end up as the Middle English word “example.” Its original meaning is “to take out.” The word has been in usage since the 14th century.

Meanwhile, “sample” as a word is a term derived from “example.” It shares common etymological roots with the latter because it evolved from the Old French “essaumple.” It began to be used as a word a century later than “example.”

The second reason you might get them confused is that, occasionally, sample is listed as a synonym for example, though that use is antiquated according to Merriam-Webster.

To sum it up, here’s a little more from the article I mentioned above:

An example, by definition, is a noun that shows and mirrors other things. Examples are used to exemplify and illustrate something. “Example” is also utilized as a tool for the explanation and reinforcement of a particular point. Moreover, examples are used for strict compliance or as a premeditated experience. In this manner, it is expected that the example will be followed and replicated among its audience….

On the other hand, a sample is a small part of something much bigger. Unlike an example, a sample is random and not specific. Samples are often used to describe the quality or nature of a specific whole. “Sample” is often used in statistics or quantitative research as a term to describe part of a target population. Samples are often tangible parts and can be observed using the five senses of sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing.

In most instances here at work, we would be writing and providing examples to our readers: showing them how to do something, showing a reflection of what a process should look like, or providing them with a version of a problem that has been worked and completed.

Offering a client a sample is giving the client a little piece of something, like a quick look at part of something bigger—a teaser of the next best product. Most of us aren’t in that business, though. We want to provide full, fantastic, problem-solving examples and solutions.

There. Hopefully I have defined my way out of punishment.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: