- Determine the purpose and structure of comparison and contrast in writing.
- Explain organizational methods used when comparing and contrasting.
- Understand how to write a compare-and-contrast essay.
The Purpose of Comparison and Contrast in Writing
Comparison in writing discusses elements that are similar, while contrast in writing discusses elements that are different. A compare-and-contrast essay, then, analyzes two subjects by comparing them, contrasting them, or both.
The key to a good compare-and-contrast essay is to choose two or more subjects that connect in a meaningful way. The purpose of conducting the comparison or contrast is not to state the obvious but rather to illuminate subtle differences or unexpected similarities. For example, if you wanted to focus on contrasting two subjects you would not pick apples and oranges; rather, you might choose to compare and contrast two types of oranges or two types of apples to highlight subtle differences. For example, Red Delicious apples are sweet, while Granny Smiths are tart and acidic. Drawing distinctions between elements in a similar category will increase the audience’s understanding of that category, which is the purpose of the compare-and-contrast essay.
Similarly, to focus on comparison, choose two subjects that seem at first to be unrelated. For a comparison essay, you likely would not choose two apples or two oranges because they share so many of the same properties already. Rather, you might try to compare how apples and oranges are quite similar. The more divergent the two subjects initially seem, the more interesting a comparison essay will be.
Writing at Work
Comparing and contrasting is also an evaluative tool. In order to make accurate evaluations about a given topic, you must first know the critical points of similarity and difference. Comparing and contrasting is a primary tool for many workplace assessments. You have likely compared and contrasted yourself to other colleagues. Employee advancements, pay raises, hiring, and firing are typically conducted using comparison and contrast. Comparison and contrast could be used to evaluate companies, departments, or individuals.
Brainstorm an essay that leans toward contrast. Choose one of the following three categories. Pick two examples from each. Then come up with one similarity and three differences between the examples.
- Romantic comedies
- Internet search engines
- Cell phones
Brainstorm an essay that leans toward comparison. Choose one of the following three items. Then come up with one difference and three similarities.
- Department stores and discount retail stores
- Fast food chains and fine dining restaurants
- Dogs and cats
The Structure of a Comparison and Contrast Essay
The compare-and-contrast essay starts with a thesis that clearly states the two subjects that are to be compared, contrasted, or both and the reason for doing so. The thesis could lean more toward comparing, contrasting, or both. Remember, the point of comparing and contrasting is to provide useful knowledge to the reader. Take the following thesis as an example that leans more toward contrasting.
Thesis statement: Organic vegetables may cost more than those that are conventionally grown, but when put to the test, they are definitely worth every extra penny.
Here the thesis sets up the two subjects to be compared and contrasted (organic versus conventional vegetables), and it makes a claim about the results that might prove useful to the reader.
You may organize compare-and-contrast essays in one of the following two ways:
- According to the subjects themselves, discussing one then the other
- According to individual points, discussing each subject in relation to each point
See Figure 10.1 “Comparison and Contrast Diagram”, which diagrams the ways to organize our organic versus conventional vegetables thesis.
Figure 10.1 Comparison and Contrast Diagram
The organizational structure you choose depends on the nature of the topic, your purpose, and your audience.
Given that compare-and-contrast essays analyze the relationship between two subjects, it is helpful to have some phrases on hand that will cue the reader to such analysis. See Table 10.3 “Phrases of Comparison and Contrast” for examples.
Table 10.3 Phrases of Comparison and Contrast
|one similarity||one difference|
|another similarity||another difference|
|in a similar fashion||whereas|
Writing a Comparison and Contrast Essay
First choose whether you want to compare seemingly disparate subjects, contrast seemingly similar subjects, or compare and contrast subjects. Once you have decided on a topic, introduce it with an engaging opening paragraph. Your thesis should come at the end of the introduction, and it should establish the subjects you will compare, contrast, or both as well as state what can be learned from doing so.
The body of the essay can be organized in one of two ways: by subject or by individual points. The organizing strategy that you choose will depend on, as always, your audience and your purpose. You may also consider your particular approach to the subjects as well as the nature of the subjects themselves; some subjects might better lend themselves to one structure or the other. Make sure to use comparison and contrast phrases to cue the reader to the ways in which you are analyzing the relationship between the subjects.
After you finish analyzing the subjects, write a conclusion that summarizes the main points of the essay and reinforces your thesis. See Chapter 15 “Readings: Examples of Essays” to read a sample compare-and-contrast essay.
Writing at Work
Many business presentations are conducted using comparison and contrast. The organizing strategies—by subject or individual points—could also be used for organizing a presentation. Keep this in mind as a way of organizing your content the next time you or a colleague have to present something at work.
Choose one of the outlines you created in Note 10.75 “Exercise 3”, and write a full compare-and-contrast essay. Be sure to include an engaging introduction, a clear thesis, well-defined and detailed paragraphs, and a fitting conclusion that ties everything together.
- A compare-and-contrast essay analyzes two subjects by either comparing them, contrasting them, or both.
- The purpose of writing a comparison or contrast essay is not to state the obvious but rather to illuminate subtle differences or unexpected similarities between two subjects.
- The thesis should clearly state the subjects that are to be compared, contrasted, or both, and it should state what is to be learned from doing so.
There are two main organizing strategies for compare-and-contrast essays.
- Organize by the subjects themselves, one then the other.
- Organize by individual points, in which you discuss each subject in relation to each point.
- Use phrases of comparison or phrases of contrast to signal to readers how exactly the two subjects are being analyzed.
This is a derivative of Writing for Success by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution, originally released and is used under CC BY-NC-SA. This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
WRITING A COMPARE/CONTRAST PAPER
A compare and contrast essay examines two or more topics (objects, people, or ideas, for example), comparing their similarities and contrasting their differences. You may choose to focus exclusively on comparing, exclusively on contrasting, or on both-or your instructor may direct you to do one or both.
First, pick useable subjects and list their characteristics. In fact, their individual characteristics determine whether the subjects are useable. After that, choose a parallel pattern of organization and effective transitions to set your paper above the merely average.
1. Picking a subject
Focus on things that can obviously be compared or contrasted. For instance, if you are examining an idea (political or philosophical) examine the opposite of that idea. Or, if you are examining a person, like a president, pick another president for comparison or contrast. Don't try to compare a president and a cab driver, or existentialism and a legislative bill on car tax refunds.
2. Listing characteristics
Divide a piece of paper into two sides. One side is for the first subject, the other for the second subject. Then, begin to list the similarities and differences that immediately come to mind. Concentrate on characteristics that either are shared or are opposing between the two subjects. Alternately, you may construct a Venn diagram of intersecting circles, listing the subjects' differences to either side and their similarities where the circles intersect. Keep in mind that for a balanced paper, you want to make point-by-point, parallel comparisons (or contrasts).
Similarities between my math and English instructors:
Both are welcoming and available to students.
Both are organized and keep a neat office.
Both are knowledgeable and professional.
Differences between my math and English instructors
Math teacher listens to classic rock. English teacher listens to jazz.
Math teacher drinks Earl Grey tea. English teacher drinks strong black coffee.
Math teacher likes to chat about movies. English teacher sticks to business.
As you create your list, is it clear why you are comparing and contrasting these two subjects? Do you have a preference for one or the other? If so, make sure you are evaluating each side fairly. A point-by-point list helps you maintain balance.
Once you have a list, decide whether there are more similarities or differences between the topics. If there are more similarities, concentrate your paper on comparing. If there are more differences (or if, as in the example above, the differences are simply more interesting), concentrate on contrasting. If there is a balance of similarities and differences, you might concentrate on discussing this balance.
There are at least two ways to organize a compare/contrast essay. Imagine you are examining Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, both Civil War generals. In your list you have uncovered important points of dissimilarity between them. Those points are their background, personalities, and underlying aspirations. (Call these three points A, B, and C.) You have decided to contrast the two subjects.
Here is one way to organize the body of this paper, addressing points A, B, and C for each subject. This paper will follow parallel order–A, B, and then C–for each subject:
A. Lee's background
B. Lee's personality
C. Lee's underlying aspirations
A. Grant's background
B. Grant's personality
C. Grant's underlying aspirations
However, here is another way to organize the same paper:
A. Lee's background
A. Grant's background
B. Lee's personality
B. Grant's personality
C. Lee's underlying aspiration
C. Grant's underlying aspiration
For a shorter paper, the above might represent three paragraphs; if you are writing a long paper and have a great deal of information, you may choose to write about each point, A, B, and C, in separate paragraphs for a total of six. However you decide to organize, make sure it is clear why you are examining this subject. You might be able to compare apples and oranges, for example, but why would you? Include any insights or opinions you have gathered. And yes, in general, three is the magic number. While there is no hard-and-fast rule that precludes creating a paper based on two points, or four, or five, a three-point discussion is manageable, especially for complex or abstract subjects. At the same time, a three-point structure helps you avoid oversimplifying, especially when addressing controversial topics in which discussions tend to become polarized–right or wrong, black or white, for or against. Three-point treatments encourage discussion of the middle ground.
4. Signaling transitions
Learn to use expressions that precisely convey contrast or comparison. These expressions, or transitions, signal contrast:
- on the contrary
- on the other hand
These expressions signal comparison:
- as well as
- in common with
Signal words such as these help the reader understand the relationships between your sentences, paragraphs, and ideas. In particular, if you are both comparing and contrasting, signal words help sort out what's what. Second only to effective organization, effective use of these expressions will go a long way toward helping produce a good compare/contrast paper.