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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What is a compare-contrast essay?
Have you encountered an essay prompt that directs you to compare or contrast two elements (e.g., two characters in a story, two different political theories, two different religious doctrines or scientific explanations, two different historical events, and so forth)? This is called a compare-contrast essay, and it is a form you are likely to encounter often.
Comparison essays tend to focus on similarities, while contrast essays focus on differences. Realistically, either type of essay will usually address both similarities and differences.
3 keys to a compare-contrast essay
- Explain precisely what you are comparing, defining terms as necessary
- Narrow your focus; be specific about what you are and are not comparing or contrasting
- Keep the comparison or contrast alive throughout the essay
Example of a compare-contrast essay question
Here is a compare/contrast essay question from Excellence in Literature’s English 3, American Literature, Module 2, considering The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Miles Standish.
Essay prompt: Write a 750-word essay comparing and contrasting the courtship strategies of Irving’s characters, Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones, with Longfellow’s characters, Miles Standish and John Alden. Be sure to address the following issues:
- What was each man’s strategy and how well did it work?
- In what ways, if any, could the losing candidates have improved their chances for success?
- How did the young ladies who were being courted communicate their preferences to the young man of their choice?
- How did each courtship compare with an ideal courtship?
- Optional: How did the courtships reflect the ideas and concerns of the Romantic era?
- Be sure to use quotations from each work to support your viewpoint.
One way to approach the essay question
You could approach the multi-part question above with a graphic organizer or by charting the answers as in the table below. Just use a notebook, draw a line down the middle of a page and write in the answers to the questions below. The resulting outline can be used as a basis for the essay.
|Ichabod and Brom||Miles and John|
|Courtship strategy: how did Ichabod try to show Katrina that he liked her? Give examples from the text.||Courtship strategy: how did John try to show Priscilla that he liked her? Give examples from the text.|
|Did it work? How do you know? Who actually won?||Did it work? How do you know? Who actually won?|
|What made the winning man’s courtship successful? What could the losing suitor have done differently?||What made the winning man’s courtship successful? What could the losing suitor have done differently?|
|How did Katrina show who she preferred? Were her suitors surprised?||How did Priscilla show who she preferred? Were her suitors surprised?|
|What is an ideal courtship like? How was Ichabod’s or Brom’s courtship different from or similar to an ideal courtship (would you have wanted to be Ichabod or Brom or be courted by either of them)?||What is an ideal courtship like? How was Miles or John’s courtship different from or similar to an ideal courtship (would you have wanted to be John or Miles or be courted by them)?|
Establish a foundation with a thesis
A thesis statement takes a position on a debateable point. It can be a response to an essay prompt or simply a statement of a paper’s argument. In a compare-contrast essay, the thesis can either (1) state a preference for one of the two things being compared or (2) make an interpretative assertion about the differences or similarities between the two.
Example for the essay prompt above: Of the four courtship strategies employed in these two stories, the most effective ones seemed to focus on the young lady in question, and the least successful focused on the suitor himself.
Once the comparison and the basis of the argument have been defined, then you need to organize the sequence of paragraphs in the main body of the argument. In setting up the sequence of the paragraphs, you have some options, as follows:
- Keep the comparison alive in every paragraph, so that the argument discusses each half of the comparison in each paragraph.
- Alternate between the two subjects, point by point.
- State your entire argument for one side first, then consider the other side of the comparison.
Here is another sample outline of a compare contrast essay.
This article was adapted from the Excellence in Literature Handbook for Writers, which is available from Everyday Education, LLC (Janice Campbell’s site).
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