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Gary Provost, Make Your Words Work (Writer's Digest Books, 1990). See Examples and Observations, below.


A short account (or narrative) of an interesting or amusing incident, often intended to illustrate or support some point in an essay, article, or chapter of a book. Adjective: anecdotal.

The expression anecdotal evidence refers to the use of particular instances or concrete examples to support a general claim. Such information (sometimes referred to pejoratively as "hearsay") may be compelling but does not, in itself, provide proof.

See also:


From the Greek, "unpublished items"

Examples and Observations:

  • "The writer makes his living by anecdotes. He searches them out and carves them as the raw materials of his profession. No hunter stalking his prey is more alert to the presence of his quarry than a writer looking for small incidents that cast a strong light on human behavior."
    (Norman Cousins, The Healing Heart: Antidotes to Panic and Helplessness. Avon, 1984)

  • "Anecdotes are another ingredient found in most successful articles. . . .

    "To test your article for anecdotes just count the number of anecdotes in it. Three is a nice number in an average-size article, but it's not mandatory. The important thing is to discover whether or not you have developed the habit of using anecdotes. . . . If your article has no anecdotes, go back through it and look for an opportunity to use one."
    (Gary Provost, Make Your Words Work. Writer's Digest Books, 1990)

  • "From its beginning the anecdote has acted as a leveling device. It humanizes, democratizes, acts as a counterweight to encomium. Perhaps that is why it flourishes best in countries that, like Britain and the United States, enjoy a strong democratic tradition."
    (Clifton Fadiman, ed., The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, 1985)

  • An Anecdote About Alfred Einstein
    "There was something elusively whimsical about Einstein. It is illustrated by my favorite anecdote about him. In his first year in Princeton, on Christmas Eve, so the story goes, some children sang carols outside his house. Having finished, they knocked on his door and explained they were collecting money to buy Christmas presents. Einstein listened, then said, "Wait a moment." He put on his scarf and overcoat, and took his violin from its case. Then, joining the children as they went from door to door,he accompanied their singing of 'Silent Night' on his violin."
    (Banesh Hoffman, "My Friend, Albert Einstein." Reader's Digest, January 1968)

  • Anecdotes About Ralph Waldo Emerson
    "In [Ralph Waldo] Emerson's later years his memory began increasingly to fail. He used to refer to it as his 'naughty memory' when it let him down. He would forget the names of things, and have to refer to them in a circumlocutory way, saying, for instance, 'the implement that cultivates the soil' for plow. Worse, he could not remember people's names. At Longfellow's funeral, he remarked to a friend, 'That gentleman has a sweet, beautiful soul, but I have entirely forgotten his name.' Perhaps most touching was his term for umbrella--'the thing that strangers take away.'"
    (Reported in Clifton Fadiman, ed., The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, 1985)

  • Anecdotal Evidence
    "Anecdotal evidence involves the close examination of particular instances, often including the writer's or researcher's own experience with whatever he or she is studying. So, for example, a historian wishing to understand the origins and development of the Latino community in a small East Coast American city might use as a large part of his or her evidence interviews conducted with local Latino residents.

    "Anecdotal evidence is in some ways at the opposite extreme from statistical evidence. . . . [T]he kinds of thinking based on anecdotal evidence is less concerned with verifiable trends and patterns than with a more detailed and up-close presentation of particular instances.

    "Given the difficulty of claiming that a single case (anecdote) is representative of the whole, researchers using anecdotal evidence tend to achieve authority through a large number of small instances, which begin to suggest a trend. Authority can also be acquired through the audience's sense of the analytical ability of the researcher, his or her skill, for example, at convincingly connecting the evidence with the claim."
    (David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen, Writing Analytically, 5th ed. Thomson, 2009)

    "Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence too easily sways many people's opinions . . .. A well-known phenomenon is the 'person-who' effect that occurs when someone uses anecdotal evidence to discount a statistical generalization. For example, a smoker may dismiss the risk of smoking by noting that his or her father smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and lived to be 75. In this case, the person seems to ignore the larger body of evidence that people who smoke have a shorter life expectancy and an increased risk of health problems."
    (Bart L. Weathington et al., Research Methods for the Behavioral and Social Sciences. John Wiley, 2010)

  • Anecdotes vs. Analysis
    "An 'effective' presidential address substitutes form for content, relying on McLuhan's theory that 'the medium is the message.' [Ronald] Reagan, a master of the technique, [filled] his addresses with homely anecdotes that appear to have been culled directly from the pages of the Reader's Digest:
    Some years ago when we were a young nation and our people began visiting the lands of our forefathers, these American tourists were rather brash, unsophisticated by European standards, but blessed with a spirit of independence and pride.

    One such tourist, an elderly, small town gentleman, and his wife were there in Europe listening to a tour guide go on about the wonders of the volcano Mount Aetna. He spoke of the great heat that it generated, the power, the boiling lava, etc. Finally the old boy had had enough of it, turned to his wife, and he said, 'We've got a volunteer fire department at home that'd put that thing out in 15 minutes.' But he was typical of those Americans who helped build a neighbor's barn when it burned down. They built the West without an area redevelopment plan, and cities across the land without Federal planning.
    "Note how skillfully the language used plays on our most treasured myths: American innocence vs. European sophistication; independence; spunk; pride; neighborliness; pioneering courage. How this artful anecdote actually relates to any specific programs or policies is left reassuringly vague. Does it mean cuts in urban development funds? In funds for public transportation? As Nixon speech writer William Gavin explains, 'the idea behind such rhetoric is to 'leave blanks in [viewers'] minds, elementary concepts based on emotion without any need to worry about analysis or reasoning.' The 'content' of such a message is supplied by the viewer, who, massaged into a mood of acceptance with familiar bromides, naturally assumes these words will 'translate' into an action he himself approves of. . . . As one long-time political analyst says, 'If you approach people the right way, you could get them to applaud their own hanging.'"
    (Donna Woolfolk Cross, Mediaspeak: How Television Makes Up Your Mind. Coward-McCann, 1983)
Pronunciation: ANN-ik-dote
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