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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The compare and contrast essay, also called the comparison and contrast essay, requires the writer to compare the differences and similarities between two or more items. The context will vary depending on the nature of the essay. For example, you may be asked to compare and contrast:
- Possible positions or standpoints on an issue
- Specific theories
- Statistics and figures
- Literary texts
- Historic or current events
What does contrast mean? What about compare?
COMPARE AND CONTRAST DEFINITION
Contrast: To seek out the differences in two or more subjects.
Compare: To seek out similarities in two or more subjects.
The word ‘compare’ is a bit of a misnomer when used in relation to a comparative essay analysis. In fact, the actual objective is to explore how the chosen issues or ideas are similar and what makes them different from each other. Hence the phrase: Compare and Contrast.
ESSAY WRITING FORMAT USING THE POINT-by-POINT METHOD
POINT 1: Discuss topic A
POINT 1: Discuss topic B
COMPARE & CONTRAST: Discuss how the first point relates to or differs from topic A and topic B
POINT 2: Discuss topic A
POINT 2: Discuss topic B
COMPARE & CONTRAST: Discuss how the second point relates or differs from topic A and topic B
Continue on as needed.
How to Write a Compare and Contrast Essay
Compare and contrast papers are most commonly seen in secondary and post-secondary classrooms and, in many circumstances, the assignment instructions will clearly outline the topics or ideas that need to be compared. However, in the event that it does not, you may be asked to create a basis for comparison on a subject of your choosing.
If you are asked to come up with a topic, it is important the subjects be comparable so that you are capable of clearly articulating the differences and the similarities between each.
For example, you would be hard pressed to compare Christmas Trees to Easter Hams. Save for being centered on the holidays, the two have very little in common. Apple Trees and Oak Trees, albeit not very interesting subjects, are comparable.
WRITE A LIST OF SIMILARTIES AND DIFFERENCES
After having settled on the items for comparison, it is necessary to think methodically about how the items relate to one another and how they may differ and to create a list that clearly outlines your findings.
For example, you may determine that the fruit of the apple tree can be harvested to create food whereas the wood of the oak tree can be harvested to create shelter. Both trees provide shade.
Keep in mind that the list of ideas and thoughts that you’ve compiled is not an ‘outline’ for a comparative analysis essay. However, it should consist of enough similarities and differences to aid you in creating an initial starting point and help you to formulate essay ideas.
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How to Start a Compare and Contrast Essay
After you’ve completed the list of the things that are similar and different between each of the two items, determine whether the similarities hold more weight than the differences or if the differences outweigh the similarities.
The thesis statement should be reflective of your findings. A more detailed and multifarious thesis statement will typically consist of both similarities and dissimilarities.
There are two possible outcomes:
- The differences overshadow the similarities or,
- The similarities overshadow the differences
Whichever direction you go, the essay writing format is the same: The Introduction, The Body and, The Conclusion.
The introductory paragraph should engage readers and encourage them to continue reading, for this reason it is important to focus on a key fact about one of the subjects being compared or to ask a question that will be answered in the body or conclusion of the essay.
The introduction of a comparison paper should effectively describe what the proceeding essay is to discuss so if you are planning to compare apple trees and oak trees, be certain to use clear language. Try to avoid using verbiage like ‘the topic of my essay will be the difference between apple and oak trees’ and instead try to use more compelling statements like “What makes apple trees there perfect complement to any backyard orchard? Why do oak trees create curb appeal? Both improve the esthetics of a yard for different reasons, and they have more similarities than you may have originally thought.” When properly conveyed, the introductory statement can also serve as the thesis statement.
The introduction should be used to create an overall outline of the comparison research paper. For example, if the initial compare and contrast paragraph focuses on comparing and contrasting each tree, the second should focus on a different point – like the overall esthetics of the two, and the third may be about differences in upkeep.
Much like all essays, the body of a compare and contrast essay requires a certain degree of planning. This means that before attempting to compare and contrast the chosen subjects, it is necessary to create a list of everything that you know to be true about each item.
- What do you know?
- What needs further research?
Review the list you’ve made. It is likely that you were able to pick out more dissimilarities than similarities. This means that you may have to do a little more research to see how your items are connected.
As you research each item, attempt to find information that may not be widely known. Keep in mind that if a reader is going to choose to read an essay comparing and contrasting apple and oak trees, they probably already have a thorough knowledge on the subject matter. In order to keep your essay informative and engaging, you will need to source for factual information that not only impresses the reader but also teaches them something they may not have already known.
The closing paragraph is also essential in writing a comparing and contrasting essay. It should conclude the compare and contrast essay in its entirety and not leave any margin of doubt. Whatever points you indicated in your introduction that you were going to make, be sure to draft a solid summary in the conclusion – and, be certain to reference back to a point or statement made in the essay’s body.
Contrast Essay Outline
Essentially, there are two possible ways to outline or organize a comparative writing paper. The first, being the one mentioned earlier – the Point-by-Point or Alternating Method. And the second being the Block Method.
Either method is acceptable so long as the format remains consistent throughout the essay.
THE ALTERNATING METHOD
In this method, the writer uncovers points related to item A and item B and alternates between the two based on the point being made.
|Item A||Paragraph 1 (Body)||1st Point|
|Item B||Paragraph 2 (Body)||1st Point|
|Item A||Paragraph 3 (Body)||2nd Point|
|Item B||Paragraph 4 (Body)||2nd Point|
Regardless of whether or not the items are similar or different, the Point-by-Point method necessitates that the writer have something of value to say about each item in each point. There is not stipulation on how many points can be compared, provided that the points being made are relevant.
HOW TO KNOW WHEN TO USE THE POINT-by-POINT METHOD
Generally speaking, teachers prefer when students use the point-by-point method because it has been proven to more accurately highlight the differences and similarities by contrasting each point. This method also produces a more thought provoking and analytical research paper. If you are able to clearly and concisely identify relatable points between subject A and subject B, the alternating method is likely the most productive format to follow.
THE BLOCK METHOD
Also referred to as the Subject-by-Subject method, the block method requires that the writer discusses point for subject A and then every point for subject B.
|Item A||Paragraph 1 to 3 (Body)||Point 1,2,3…|
|Item B||Paragraph 4 to 6 (Body)||Point 1,2,3…|
When choosing the Block Method, do not attempt to inject two unrelated essays into a thesis statement. The second subject should refer to the first subject and make clear reference as to how the two are comparable or different. This will help to ensure continuity and strengthen reader engagement.
HOW TO KNOW WHEN TO USE THE SUBJECT-by-SUBJECT METHOD
Less commonly used, the block method is beneficial when you are having difficulty establishing points that closely relate subject A to subject B or when you are attempting to compare and contract three or more items.
Compare and Contrast Essay Examples and Guidelines
- Unless the topic is assigned, pick one that you can effectively argue. The key is to deliver more information than simply how the two items are related or different.
- Give each item the same amount of talk time. If item A has three points (or paragraphs), item B should also have three points (or paragraphs).
- Take the time to properly connect the subjects. The most common challenge faced by those writing comparative essays comes from inadvertently forgetting to actually compare the items by simply summarizing each item.
- Use the conclusion as your final chance to not only reiterate your thesis, but also to sum up your key points and also to convey to the reader why exactly it is that your researched finding are noteworthy.
- Remember to properly cite all sources.