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When we list, we can exemplify or we can enumerate. By exemplifying, we provide an instance, or several instances, of a certain phenomenon; by enumerating, we list all such instances. Sometimes it is handy to simply provide one or two examples in order to illustrate a point: phrases such as 'for example', 'for instance' and 'to exemplify' allow us to make it clear that what we are doing is simply providing a small number of examples — 'We will all have to tighten our belts. For example, ministers will receive less pay and pensions will be frozen'. Through enumeration, on the other hand, we claim to provide a complete list, with no components left out. If we did our shopping based on the following list and it turned out that the recipe also required milk, we might be a little annoyed: 'The ingredients you will need are chocolate, icing sugar, butter and ground almonds'.

Example 1

The boundary between exemplification and enumeration can be fuzzy. Sometimes the reader or hearer has to make their own inferences to determine whether what they are being provided with is a complete list or a selection of examples. The following example could represent a case of either exemplification or enumeration:

'We will make efficiency savings by seeking services at lower prices, making better use of technology,

reviewing and improving how we work and increasing productivity'.

The separation of list elements with commas, with 'and' separating the final two elements, suggests that this is a case of enumeration. However, there is no phrase such as 'in these four ways' to make this clear. It could be the case that there are other — perhaps more useful — ways of making efficiency savings, that aren't included here: the lack of clarity over whether this list is a case of enumeration or exemplification means the reader cannot be sure.

Important to any discussion of exemplification and enumeration is the significance of the three-part list. Three-part lists are commonly used in advertising and rhetoric — think of 'Snap, crackle and pop' or 'one people, one empire, one leader' — each of which seeks to have a powerful, attention-grabbing effect on hearers and readers (albeit for slightly different purposes!). The effectiveness of three-part lists seems to be due to an implied sense of completeness: a list of two seems unconvincing, but a list of three seems, intuitively, to be comprehensive. Text producers often take advantage of this. For example, three-part lists were used extensively in the Conservatives' 2010 general election manifesto in order to persuade voters of the comprehensiveness of their aims and the suitability of the party for government: "an authentically Conservative vision: sound money, backing enterprise, trusting people", "We have the energy, the ideas and the ambition to get Britain back on track". Note that these three-part lists give the reader the impression that the party has all the requisite abilities, and that there are no other desirable traits that the Conservatives might be missing.

Example 2

One famous, and slightly unconventional, example of a three-part list was used by Tony Blair to help convey the apparent importance of a particular aspect of New Labour's responsibilities whilst in government. Delivering a speech on Labour's priorities, Blair insisted that "Ask me my three main priorities for government and I tell you education, education, and education." This was a striking and effective way to make his point: Blair took advantage of our intuitive sense that three-part lists are complete to suggest that nothing besides education mattered. This created an arguably more powerful effect than if he had simply stated 'We have one main priority: education'. Note also that this is a case of enumeration, rather than exemplification: Blair states that there are three priorities, then lists all three of them, strengthening the impression that education is Labour's only main priority.

Spotting exemplification and enumeration

Look out for the use of listing in advertising. When you come across it, consider whether it is a case of enumeration or exemplification — perhaps more importantly, do you think that the form of listing chosen is justified? When you come across a three-part list, consider whether or not you think the combination of the elements in it justify the sense of completeness that is being conveyed.

Recommended reading

The following text discusses the significance of three-part lists:

Atkinson, Max. 1984. Our Masters' Voices. London: Methuen and Co.

The section on 'Exemplifying and Enumerating' in Jeffries' summary of critical stylistic tools explains how to spot exemplification and enumeration, and demonstrates their ideological significance:

Jeffries, Lesley. 2010. Critical Stylistics: The Power of English. Hampshire: Palgrave, 66-76.

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