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What Does "Case in Point" Mean?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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"Case in point" is a specific example used in discourse to illustrate a point or serve as an affirmation or a demonstration of a point. It is used in a variety of modes of discourse, from oratory and rhetoric to scientific studies and magazine articles. The term is used in speech and writing as a linking phrase between the idea and the example itself.

The phrase is an idiom related to "in point of fact." An idiom is a non-literal phrase of clause that derives a meaning from two or more normal words. "Case in point" contains and older idiom "in point" that is considered a fossil idiom. This is similar to a fossil word, as it only appears within another idiom. Other examples of fossil words include "ulterior" in "ulterior motives" and "kith" in "kith and kin."

“In point” comes from the Anglo-Norman idiom en point, which means "on the point," or more literally, "relevant." It probably comes from putting the point of a dagger, knife, or sword exactly where it needs to be. In 1659, Thomas Burton used the term in a description of Lord Fairfax’s political machinations.

Case comes from the Latin word casus, meaning a "chance event." It is used commonly by police to refer to an event they are investigating and is combined with history to mean medical records. "Case in point" probably came from a misunderstanding of Anglo-Norman. The original could have been "case en point" or "en point case," where a person was referring to a relevant example. It is likely that "en" was mispronounced as "in" and the idiom changed before being combined with "case."

Discourse usually places this phrase in the middle. The discourse will open with an introduction of the topic, and then it fleshes out the topic with a full description. The example is introduced to illustrate the topic, whether relevant to the problem or solution. Discourses tend to round off with analysis and a conclusion.

This example can be introduced in a number of ways. The simplest is the one-line introduction: "A is more effective than B; the C study is a case in point." Alternatively, the phrase will be introduced briefly, then expanded upon. In such a case, the "C study" will then provide testimony, details, and statistics to back up the point the orator or writer is trying to make.

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Discussion Comments

By MrMoody — On Feb 05, 2012

@NathanG - That’s an excellent point. The case in point definition does make it clear that it’s an idiom, along with “in point of fact.”

I’ve never liked idioms, personally. This is because of my time spent as an ESL teacher. It’s difficult to teach idioms to students. Idioms simply don’t translate well, whereas simple words do.

Also, I think if you omit idioms from your discourse or writing, you will invariably be more concise as a speaker and writer. Idioms require more words than their simple one word definitions from what I’ve seen.

By NathanG — On Feb 05, 2012

Frankly, I don’t see any difference between “case in point” and “example.” Whether you use one or the other is more a matter of preference or a bit of rhetorical flourish, if you will.

People will use “case in point” because it sounds more official, which is certainly keeping with its etymology as an idiom used in the legal field.

The term “example” sounds very generic. It’s also important to note that the phrase “case in point” is an idiom whereas the term “example” is a noun. So the real question becomes, do you want to express yourself using an idiom or a noun? The choice is up to you.

By burcidi — On Feb 04, 2012

@alisha-- I'm trying to use this idiom in my homework essay. That's actually a really good explanation you provided! It helped me understand better.

I have another question though. In order to use "case in point," is it also necessary that the example I'm giving is familiar to the audience? Because how do they know if my example is supportive of or proving my statement if they are not familiar with it?

If I give an example like Harry Potter it would work because everyone knows about Harry Potter. But if I talk about a less known novel or book, it might not work the same right?

By discographer — On Feb 03, 2012

@simrin-- Well, the two can be used interchangeably. But I believe that "case in point" is slightly different and could possibly be categorized as a subcategory of "example." Because "case in point" is not just an example, it's an example which supports or proves a previous sentence.

You could very well give an example that doesn't really relate to the argument you're trying to make or prove it in any way. But when you say "case in point," this example is definitely supportive and proving of your argument. This is also why it's a popular idiom in legal arguments.

Is it better to use one rather than the other in some situations? Absolutely. It should be used when you want the audience to make a connection between the example and statement/argument and take the example as "proof" of the validity of other.

So when you give Mrs. Smith as case in point, "Mrs. Smith" is what supports your argument that people who have pets are calmer and happier because Mrs. Smith is a happy and calm person.

Do you see what I mean?

By SteamLouis — On Feb 03, 2012

I hear lawyers using "case in point" or "case and point" all the time in court when they are explaining something and give an example of it. I think that "case in point" and "example" are basically the same.

So why do we prefer "case in point" instead of the more common "example"? Is it more correct to use "case in point" in some situations than others?

If I were to give an example of this, I would say something like "People who have pets are calmer and happier. Mrs. Smith is a case in point."

So this statement is not different from "Mrs. Smith is a good example." Does "case in point" provide a more deeper meaning than "example"? Why does it matter which we use?

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