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I'm having a hard time to tell the nuanced difference between sample and example. Most reputable dictionaries tend suggest it's something like this:

  • Example: something you make up or cite from real life to illustrate or prove a point, argument, word usage, etc.
  • Sample: a small part of a larger whole, used to give a taste or an idea of what that larger whole could be like.

This differencebetween article contains a beautiful breakdown that affirms the difference I'm suspecting.

Therefore, to illustrate how to write an essay, I figure you'd use an "example essay", for example.

There are, however, a few issues with this. First, many dictionaries and thesauri also sloppily lump sample and example as "synonyms".

Second, some presumably authoritative sources, such as Cambridge IELTS Academic, use sample where I think example is more suitable. If we're talking about an essay meant to show how learners or would-be exam takers how to write one, there are two scenarios: one, the essay was entirely fabricated by the book's author, in which case it should be an example essay; two, the essay was pulled from an essay repository (a larger whole), in which case it should be a sample essay.

For a concrete example (sample?), take this "sample text" on transition signals. I could not verify whether this "sample" was an excerpt (from a larger, complete source), in which case it's wholly appropriately a "sample", or it was entirely made up by the author for illustrative purposes, in which case it's better called an "example".

So what is the real difference, if there's any at all, between example and sample?

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    The distinction between the words is indeed as you say, but in the particular context of 'sample essays', 'sample answers' and the like, I don't think there is any great difference in meaning. Sep 16, 2022 at 8:07
  • First, please at least cross-validate anything you find at that differencebetween article link. Who finds it trustworthy, please explain how or why! Sep 18, 2022 at 17:16
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    Broadly, an 'example' is a theoretical construct, such as we might use here to illustrate point of grammar or semantics. By contrast a 'sample' is a physical item, such as a travelling salesman might carry, which might be a real item or a model thereof… In a wholly different context, a 'sample' might refer to any amount of data collected, while an 'example' would refer to a single… prolly typical… instance. Sep 18, 2022 at 17:24
  • @RobbieGoodwin "Who finds it trustworthy, please explain how or why!" What in the world are you getting at? I'm not citing that link in my question as an authoritative source, it's only tantamount to "hey, someone's on the internet validated my opinion" and that's it. I've quoted links from bloody forums, with anonymous users, even Wikipedia as well, here before for heaven's sake! How exactly do you suppose I "cross-validate" it anyway? Sep 19, 2022 at 1:08
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    Sample is not a technical term in linguistics; example is. A sample says this is a part of something, and there's more there. An example, on the other hand, says this is an entire thing, and there are others like it. Linguists use example sentences, like Never have I seen such a thing, to illustrate syntactic points (like negative inversion, in this example), but they never give samples. Sep 23, 2022 at 19:37

2 Answers 2

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The definitions are as you describe. A sample is a small portion of a larger collection, while examples are items that illustrate a concept.

They're closely related because often you will use a sample as an example. And in contexts where this relationship is clear, people may use the words interchangeably.

For instance, when people post questions here, we request that they include a "sample sentence" where it would be used. It would probably be more precise to ask for an "example sentence", but in this context they're understood to be synonymous.

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Let us take the help of Wiktionary

Word Sample Example
Etymology From Middle English saumple, sample, from Old French essample (“example”), from Latin exemplum. Doublet of example and exemplum. From Middle English example, from Old French essample, from Latin exemplum (“sample, pattern, specimen, copy for imitation, etc.”, literally “what is taken out”); see exempt. Doublet of exemplum and sample. Displaced native Old English bȳsn.
Meanings 1. A part or snippet of something taken or presented for inspection, or shown as evidence of the quality of the whole; a specimen. e.g. a blood sample 1. Something that is representative of all such things in a group.
2. (statistics) A subset of a population selected for measurement, observation or questioning, to provide statistical information about the population. e.g. Large samples are generally more reliable than small samples due to having less variability. 2. Something that serves to illustrate or explain a rule.
3. (cooking) A small quantity of food for tasting, typically given away for free. 3. Something that serves as a pattern of behaviour to be imitated (a good example) or not to be imitated (a bad example). e.g. Nelson Mandela was an example for many to follow.
4. (business) A small piece of some goods, for determining quality, colour, etc., typically given away for free. 4. A person punished as a warning to others.
5. (music) Gratuitous borrowing of easily recognised phases (or moments) from other music (or movies) in a recording. 5. A parallel or closely similar case, especially when serving as a precedent or model.
6. (obsolete) Example; pattern. 6. An instance (as a problem to be solved) serving to illustrate the rule or precept or to act as an exercise in the application of the rule.

It seems that both "sample" and "example" are derived from the same root word. With the passage of time and with usage there came to be about a difference between them. "Number 3, 4 and 5 meanings in meanings of sample" and "Number 3, 4 and 5 meanings in meanings of example" show us the differences between "sample" and "example" and where "sample" and "example" are almost not interchangeable as synonyms.

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  • The fact they used to be variants doesn't amount to much in modern English. Doublets like this aren't that uncommon. "Flower/flour", "discreet/discrete" used to be variant spellings as well, until they were arbitrarily split into separate words. Sep 25, 2022 at 15:35

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