Compare and contrast is a common form of academic writing, either as an essay type on its own, or as part of a larger essay which includes one or more paragraphs which compare or contrast. This page gives information on what a compare and contrast essay is, how to structure this type of essay, how to use compare and contrast structure words, and how to make sure you use appropriate criteria for comparison/contrast. There is also an example compare and contrast essay on the topic of communication technology, as well as some exercises to help you practice this area.
What are compare & contrast essays?
To compare is to examine how things are similar, while to contrast is to see how they differ. A compare and contrast essay therefore looks at the similarities of two or more objects, and the differences. This essay type is common at university, where lecturers frequently test your understanding by asking you to compare and contrast two theories, two methods, two historical periods, two characters in a novel, etc. Sometimes the whole essay will compare and contrast, though sometimes the comparison or contrast may be only part of the essay. It is also possible, especially for short exam essays, that only the similarities or the differences, not both, will be discussed. See the examples below.
There are two main ways to structure a compare and contrast essay, namely using a block or a point-by-point structure. For the block structure, all of the information about one of the objects being compared/contrasted is given first, and all of the information about the other object is listed afterwards. This type of structure is similar to the block structure used for cause and effect and problem-solution essays. For the point-by-point structure, each similarity (or difference) for one object is followed immediately by the similarity (or difference) for the other. Both types of structure have their merits. The former is easier to write, while the latter is generally clearer as it ensures that the similarities/differences are more explicit.
The two types of structure, block and point-by-point, are shown in the diagram below.
Object 1 - Point 1
Object 1 - Point 2
Object 1 - Point 3
Object 2 - Point 1
Object 2 - Point 2
Object 2 - Point 3
Compare and Contrast Structure Words
Compare and contrast structure words are transition signals which show the similarities or differences. Below are some common examples.
Criteria for comparison/contrast
When making comparisons or contrasts, it is important to be clear what criteria you are using. Study the following example, which contrasts two people. Here the criteria are unclear.
Although this sentence has a contrast transition, the criteria for contrasting are not the same. The criteria used for Aaron are height (tall) and strength (strong). We would expect similar criteria to be used for Bruce (maybe he is short and weak), but instead we have new criteria, namely appearance (handsome) and intelligence (intelligent). This is a common mistake for students when writing this type of paragraph or essay. Compare the following, which has much clearer criteria (contrast structure words shown in bold).
Below is a compare and contrast essay. This essay uses the point-by-point structure. Click on the different areas (in the shaded boxes to the right) to highlight the different structural aspects in this essay, i.e. similarities, differences, and structure words. This will highlight not simply the paragraphs, but also the thesis statement and summary, as these repeat the comparisons and contrasts contained in the main body.
Title: There have been many advances in technology over the past fifty years. These have revolutionised the way we communicate with people who are far away. Compare and contrast methods of communication used today with those which were used in the past.
Before the advent of computers and modern technology, people communicating over long distances used traditional means such as letters and the telephone. Nowadays we have a vast array of communication tools which can complete this task, ranging from email to instant messaging and video calls. While the present and previous means of communication are similar in their general form, they differ in regard to their speed and the range of tools available.
One similarity between current and previous methods of communication relates to the form of communication. In the past, both written forms such as letters were frequently used, in addition to oral forms such as telephone calls. Similarly, people nowadays use both of these forms. Just as in the past, written forms of communication are prevalent, for example via email and text messaging. In addition, oral forms are still used, including the telephone, mobile phone, and voice messages via instant messaging services.
However, there are clearly many differences in the way we communicate over long distances, the most notable of which is speed. This is most evident in relation to written forms of communication. In the past, letters would take days to arrive at their destination. In contrast, an email arrives almost instantaneously and can be read seconds after it was sent. In the past, if it was necessary to send a short message, for example at work, a memo could be passed around the office, which would take some time to circulate. This is different from the current situation, in which a text message can be sent immediately.
Another significant difference is the range of communication methods. Fifty years ago, the tools available for communicating over long distances were primarily the telephone and the letter. By comparison, there are a vast array of communication methods available today. These include not only the telephone, letter, email and text messages already mentioned, but also video conferences via software such as Skype or mobile phone apps such as Wechat, and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
In conclusion, methods of communication have greatly advanced over the past fifty years. While there are some similarities, such as the forms of communication, there are significant differences, chiefly in relation to the speed of communication and the range of communication tools available. There is no doubt that technology will continue to progress in future, and the advanced tools which we use today may one day also become outdated.
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Below is a checklist for compare and contrast essays. Use it to check your own writing, or get a peer (another student) to help you.
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Let's talk about compare/contrast essays. Now, I find these to be some of the most difficult types of essays to write because it's hard to know where you're going and exactly how you're going to tell the similarities and differences between two things. So a couple of vocabulary things to straighten out first. When you're given an essay, if you're asked just to compare, all they want to know is the similarities, so compare means how they're the same. If you're asked to contrast two things, then you're being asked to tell people how they are different. So just be aware, when you're doing compare/contrast, sometimes you may be asked to compare or contrast, sometimes you may be asked to do both. So you've got to really be aware of your prompt there.
Here are the steps that I tend to go through when I'm working compare/contrast; the first thing that I do is select my topics and make sure I understand the task. So that is selecting which two things I'm going to use in my essay and then understanding am I being asked to compare, contrast or do both of those. So that's the first important step. And then the next step is to pre-write and develop categories. So obviously if we're talking about how things are similar and different, we are going to start categorizing the ways that they are similar or different. For instance, if we are comparing pizzas, we might say crust is one category that we're going to look at, sauce might be another and the variety of toppings might be another. So you can start thinking about what those categories should be.
My two favorite modes of pre-writing for compare/contrast is a Venn diagram and you may remember that from math class, the two circles that run together, you can put topic one here, topic two here and then how they're different in here and how they're similar in the middle, so that's one. I'm also a chart person so I don't mind chart especially if I've got a lot of categories and my chart might look something like this and I will have a row for each particular category. So crust, sauce and then I divide it down the middle and I seal those in. So it depends on how you like to look at things, I tend to be a little bit more organized so I like the chart the best but after I've got all these ideas down here, now I want to develop a thesis. And this is really the critical part in compare/contrast because it's really easy to say, "Well, Monical's pizza has thin crust and Giodonalds pizza has thick crust, but you want to make sure that you're answering the 'so what?' question. So you've got to come to some sort of conclusion, it's not just about saying how things are similar or how they are different but why is that important. So maybe Giodonalds is a better place to entertain people or to take people from out of town because you can get thin crust pizza anywhere. Whatever it is you've got to come to that conclusion so you can insert it in your thesis and then after that you've got to think about how you're going to organize your essay. And let's take a look at the two different ways that you can organize a compare/contrast essay.
Now, the first one is point by point. And essentially what that means is it's going to be guided by those categories that you created. So you're going to have multiple sections of your paper; one for each of the categories that you have and in each section you're going to use examples from both topics. So you might talk about crust here, and in this paragraph or set of paragraphs you're going to talk about the crust at Giodonalds and you're going to talk about the crust at Monical's. And then you move on to the next category and so on and so forth until you've talked about all your categories and given all your examples. The important thing to remember if you choose point by point is that you're going to want to make sure you do analysis within each category; so once you talk about crust, you're going to have to come to a conclusion about crust, once you talk about sauce, come to that conclusion that all goes back to your thesis. So the analysis goes throughout.
Now, some of you guys may choose block formatting. And block formatting simply means that it's guided by topic rather than category. So you're going to start with an introduction and then you're going to introduce topic one. So in this case it might be Monical's, which is my favorite kind of pizza. And what you're going to do in this area, and it could consist of multiple paragraphs, is you're going to give multiple examples from just that one topic. So the first part of my paper is going to be focused on Monical's whereas the second will be focused on Giodonalds, and I'm going to give multiple examples about Giodonalds here. One thing to know then is because you're not doing much analysis inside these paragraphs because you're sticking to just one topic, you're conclusion has got to include your analysis where you're really coming down to that 'so what?' question you're answering now, the one that you answered in your thesis statement you're repeating down here. So those are the two ways to organize compare/contrast. Make sure again that you understand the task, know are you being asked to compare or contrast or do both and hopefully this will help you get started.