Object lesson

Dictionaries define an object lesson as something that serves as a real-world example of an abstract idea or principle. The term comes from the educational practice of using a material object to help illustrate the abstract ideas of a lesson. But in actual use, the phrase’s definition is often closer to a concrete example of why something should or should not be done a certain way. Below, we’ll include a few examples of object lesson used both ways.

The term is occasionally rendered abject lesson, which doesn’t make much sense. Abject, an adjective, means lowcontemptible, or miserable, and while it’s possible to imagine rare instances in which this descriptor might make sense, abject lesson is usually just a misspelling of object lesson. 


But we think this is an object lesson in how political ads can leave a misleading impression. [Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog]

The story of the student who believed nothing except his calculator is an object lesson for everyone who thinks mathematics is just ‘sums’. [Guardian]

That was a real object lesson in how quickly a song you have no particular problem with can start to feel like a sock full of nickels pounding you between the eyes. [AV Club]

It took only a few hours after its launch for Vladimir Putin’s presidential campaign website to become an object lesson in the hazards that await him. [Sydney Morning Herald]

It’s an object lesson in how to build a scene without dialogue, and a viable short film in itself. [Daily Mail]

3 thoughts on “Object lesson”

  1. But what about “abject lesson?” I’ve heard it used all my life & you do find it in print on occasion. Before you ask, I was born in the US & have lived most (but not all) of my life in the South & I’m not a member of the younger generations.

  2. “Abject lesson” makes perfect sense. It’s a lesson that presents a “sad commentary” on a state of affairs. Claiming that a perfectly good adjective cannot modify a perfectly good noun is an “abject lesson” in hyper-correction by anally retentive control addicts.

    I have also used it all my life. I was recently corrected at work that the “correct” form is “object lesson.” But that’s not what I meant. I meant exactly what I had said. If it doesn’t make sense to you, I invite you to look at it more closely in context. It means something distinct to me, separate from “object lesson.”


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