4

The OALD just says that for instance is an idiomatic way of saying for example; it doesn't provide any information about in which context it should be used, or any other information.

Looking for sentences containing for instance or for example on the Corpus of Contemporary American English, I got 27988 sentences containing for instance against 88202 sentences containing for example.

Since the difference is big enough, I was wondering:

  • Is for instance used in specific context?
  • Is for instance considered too formal or old-style English?
  • As English learner, is there any reason I should choose for instance over for example?
  • I agree with what others have written below, saying that the two expressions are very close. As you mention the number of sentences containing one or the other expression, just think of the Italian words "neppure", "neanche" and "nemmeno". They mean the same, but in my region "neppure" is very rarely used, whereas "neanche" and "nemmeno" are rather frequent. If you find statistics about their usage, let me know. – Paola Aug 8 '13 at 16:55
  • I am from Lombardy too, but I don't see any difference of usage between neppure io, neanche io, and nemmeno io. I would rather say Non mi hai neanche guardato. instead of Non mi hai neppure guardato., though. – kiamlaluno Aug 8 '13 at 18:37
4

As per comments, there's no real difference between the two idioms.

In other contexts (such as programming) an instance of something means an incarnation, actualisation, realisation (a real thing, as opposed to a definition of that thing). And an example can often mean an instructional case (perhaps specifically created for educational purposes).

But both for instance and for example are used in exactly the same way to introduce a specific illustrative case (or cases) - often with the implication it's just a random selection from many possible alternatives.

OP has already established that for example is more common (as my link shows, it's been increasingly displacing for instance over many decades). Initially, I was prepared to believe this might justify saying that for instance is "more formal".

But in fact I don't sense that myself, and I find no evidence for the idea. Consider these usage figures...

1a: for example I have (1,100,000 written instances in Google Books)
1b: for example I've 104,000
2a for instance I have 704,000
2b: for instance I've 76,500

In both cases the "informal" contracted versions account for about 1 in 10 usages, which strongly suggests no significant difference in terms of formal/informal register.

So my advice to OP is to accept for instance as an exact synonym whenever he comes across it, but to stick with majority/modern usage and always use for example in his own speech and writing.

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1

I was raised as a French-English bilingual. As a result, I have tended to shun "for example" in English for fear that it might sound like a "leak" from the French. But I do understand the contextual difference in the use of the two expressions, as expressed by earlier posters.

Before coming across this thread, I'd done a bit of Google searching. Results from the following country codes: .co.uk, .com.au, .co.nz, .com.jm, and .ie show an predominance of "for example" against "for instance" in ratios ranging approximately from 7 to 1 to 11 to 1, whereas results from .hk, .za (4 to 1) and .in (3 to 1) may disclose a more conservative (or "old-fashioned") use of the English language by fluent speakers whose first language is not English.

But the more curious results — which I'd very much like to see interpreted by someone more knowledgeable than I am — came from the international .net and .org country domains and their much lower ratios: barely more than 2 "for example" to 1 "for instance". (I left aside the very international .com, whose 4 to 1 ratio might very well rise dramatically if we could separate USA-based websites from the rest of the world.)

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-3

They are close synonyms. An obvious difference is that you use for example when providing examples, and for instance when creating instances of things. These concepts are very similar, so an example may help:

Good:

The professor has many students. For instance, Tom, Daisy, and Gatsby are in his morning lecture.

Perhaps better:

The professor has many students. For example, Tom, Daisy, and Gatsby are in his morning lecture.

Good:

There are many shapes in flatland. For example, squares, triangles, and circles are all citizens of this two-dimensional world.

Perhaps better:

There are many shapes in flatland. For instance, squares, triangles, and circles are all citizens of this two-dimensional world.

Notice that for example is best when referring to more concrete things, and for instance is better at referring to collections or abstract entities. They are mostly interchangeable, though.

In American English, for example is more common and less formal. I would assume the UK is similar in this respect.

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  • 5
    I think you might even be overstating the difference between the two. I really don't think there's much of a difference at all (or even really any difference). – Daniel Aug 8 '13 at 16:25
  • I agree, they can be used interchangeably. Perhaps I was exaggerating the impression that each word gave. – JDong Aug 9 '13 at 19:40

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