I am looking for an English equivalent to the German "anschaulich, veranschaulichen".

Illustrate or illustrates feel most appropriate to me, but according to some dictionaries visual or figurative are more common or approriate.

Consider these two specific cases:

If I indeed have a picture, graph, etc. which can be used to describe the abstract topic.


If I do not have a specific graph, but would still like to describe the topic as "illustrative" as one easily can imagine something more tangible regarding the topic. For instance, "an illustrative/figurative(?) solution".

The NGram viewer seems to say that my impression is incorrect, and that illustrative is widely used. But is this actually correct?

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    Be careful using graphs based on the Google books corpus. Problems with how they put the corpus together aside, there is a much bigger problem: the graph doesn't tell you how each word is used in each instance. You can search using the links at the bottom, but the results can sometimes be very different from the graphs produced by Google books Ngram Viewer. To get a more precise idea, you can instead consult a corpus such as COCA where you can reliably see how the words are used in context. – snailplane Oct 25 '13 at 14:36
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    mr.gaussian, it is more natural to start questions like yours with What to call. Saying How to call sounds awkward and unnatural. – Tristan Oct 25 '13 at 15:26

The meaning you're looking for seems to be illustrate. The adjectival form, illustrative, is acceptable but rare; we prefer the verb. Here's a Google NGram that plots the incidence of "is illustrative" and "is illustrative of" as a percentage of the incidence of "illustrates".

enter image description here

As you see, the verb is today about 125 times more frequent, and I would not expect to find the adjective outside of the most formal academic register.

If you do use illustrative, it is most graceful in the predicate, with an of object.

This graphic/example/study is illustrative of the principle I have advanced.

An objectless illustrative is more often used to speak of a method involving illustration than of a specific instance of illustration.

This list is a radical departure from existing social care legislation since it is illustrative rather than exhaustive.

Adverbial anschaulich should usually be translated clearly.

You may find Linguee a useful tool in inquiries of this sort: it provides a corpus of bilingual texts—mostly official and corporate translations—which give you examples of how your input term has been translated in many different real-life contexts. Be careful, though: the highlight in the translation doesn't always pick up the relevant term—and every once in a while the 'translation' is a real clunker!

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  • Thank you, but if I want to use illustrative as an adverbial or adjective, say in "an illustrative solution", I think that "clearly" is too strong, what would be the alternative to "illustrative"? I do not want to say that it is clear, but only that it is easier to understand since it is possible to make up a picture in his mind. This is not so easily possible for similar solutions, hence both are abstract, but one of them "less abstract" since it is "illustrative"(anschaulich), =). – mr.gaussian Oct 25 '13 at 17:21
  • @mr.gaussian Well, it's hard for me to get my head around an "illustrative" solution. Is "Here's a solution that illustrates the approach I'm advocating" the sort of thing you're looking for? We just don't use "illustrative" the way you describe--we prefer the verb. We might talk about "mr. gaussian's illustrative approach to exposition", meaning you use a lot of illustrations to clarify your points, but an "illustrative solution", while acceptable, falls clangingly on the ear. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 25 '13 at 18:17
  • No, I do not want to say that the solution illustrates something, but that the solution is illustrative, in the sense that there is an illustration for the solution, an illustration, that makes the solution more tangible. The solution is not used to illustrate something, but the solution is the problem, that needs an illustration in order to get understood. "Solution" may just be a bad example without any context. I think "clear" is the right direction, but just too strong, as sounds like "100% clear". But I just want to say "clearer than..." since there is an illustration or so... – mr.gaussian Oct 25 '13 at 19:07
  • I think I am just looking for an adjective that describes the existence of a graphic, illustration or figure for an else very abstract object- in the case above, the abstract object was - somewhat paradox - the "solution". – mr.gaussian Oct 25 '13 at 19:11
  • @mr.gaussian: Wiser heads than mine are clearly finding it difficult to see exactly what you're getting at. I suggest this is prima facie evidence that illustrative isn't a good word to use when what you're talking about is a graphic/visual representation. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 25 '13 at 21:32

visual - no. Every picture is visual, unless you use the word as a metaphor for aural or olfactoric picture.

Figurative - no, it's opposite to literal. Drawn and not spoken, or metaphorical versus said plainly.

So, no. These words don't help.

Have a look at synonyms of "descriptive"

  • "Descriptive" would be right but it's more about literal descriptions.
  • "Illustrative" is very good.
  • "Expressive" if it's more about driving the point home than detailing and explaining.
  • "Revealing" - not literally, but it would work as milder synonym for "Eye-opening" or "Enlightening".
  • "Expository" - this is a plain classification of purpose: an expository picture of horse anatomy versus artistic picture of a galloping horse. About all graphs are expository.
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