- Define the purpose and structure of the compare-and-contrast essay
- Produce a compare-and-contrast essay
Introduction to Compare/Contrast
To compare two subjects is to point out their similarities.
Mardi Gras celebrations in both New Orleans and Mamou involve a sense of revelry. There are elaborate costumes and festive parades. The partying represents a last burst of irreverence before the more solemn Ash Wednesday.
To contrast two subjects is to point out their differences.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans features parades with huge, elaborate floats put on by “royalty” of Krewes; in Mamou, on the other hand, Mardi Gras revelers travel on horseback from house to house begging for ingredients for a communal gumbo.
In this module, you will develop your skills in compare-and-contrast writing.
The Purpose of a Compare/Contrast Essay
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. For example, both apples and oranges are sweet and similar in size, weight, and shape. They are both grown in orchards, and both may be eaten or juiced. The more divergent the two subjects initially seem, the more interesting a comparison essay will be.
The Structure of a Compare/Contrast Essay
The Thesis Statement
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.
The thesis may answer questions like:
- Why am I comparing these two things?
- What did I learn from the comparison?
- Is one of the two subjects better than the other?
Your thesis should make the reason for your comparison very obvious.
You might try this formula for writing your thesis statement:
Subject 1 + Subject 2 + Indication of similarity or difference + Claim = Thesis statement
Example: “The Voice” and “American Idol” are both singing competition shows, but “American Idol” is the original and still the best.
The thesis statement is generally found at the end of the introduction paragraph, after the two topics have been introduced.
One way in which a compare/contrast essay is different from other rhetorical modes we’ve discussed is that you have two options for how you structure your essay.
You can structure your essay in:
- Subject-by-subject (also called “one side at a time”)
To better understand each structure, let’s take an example of each. Imagine that we are going to write an essay that compares two popular stores, Wal-Mart and Target. In the essay, we’ll discuss the prices, the customer service, and the quality of goods at each store.
First, let’s see an example of subject-by-subject: Essentially, write a separate body about each subject, but you discuss the same supporting points for both subjects.
I. Introduction: Wal-Mart vs. Target
- Customer Service
- Quality of Goods
- Customer Service
- Quality of Goods
Notice that the body of the essay is essentially divided in half. Also notice that the same three supporting points are discussed in each half and in the same order. This gives the essay a really clear organization.
Next, let’s see an example of point-by-point: Instead of organizing the essay by the two subjects, we will organize the essay by the three supporting points. In each section, first make a point about one subject, then follow it with a comparable point about the other.
I. Introduction: Wal-Mart vs. Target
III. Customer Service
IV. Quality of Goods
Notice that in this method, there is more interaction between the two subjects. Each point that you make about Wal-Mart is directly followed by the same point about Target.
The organizational structure you choose depends on the nature of the topic, your purpose, and your audience. Generally, subject-by-subject structure may be best for essays that emphasize comparison, while point-by-point structure may suit essays that focus on contrast. However, this is a guideline, not a rule.
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.
Phrases of Comparison:
one similarity another similarity both
like likewise similarly in a similar fashion
Phrases of Contrast:
one difference another difference conversely
in contrast unlike while whereas
Using these phrases throughout your essay will serve as reminders to the reader that you are comparing and contrasting your two subjects. They will keep the essay focused on the task at hand.
Writing a Compare/Contrast Essay
First, choose whether you want to compare seemingly disparate subjects, contrast seemingly similar subjects, or compare and contrast subjects. Spend some time freewriting or listing to develop some ideas you can explore in an essay. (Refer back to the chapter on invention for more strategies to get started.)
Once you have decided on an idea, 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. It should also state what can be learned from doing so.
Next, write an outline of your essay. Choose between subject-by-subject or point-by-point structure. You might try writing two outlines, one using each structure option, to see which one you like better.
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.
Now, following the structure you’ve established in your outline, write the body paragraphs. Start each body paragraph with a clear topic sentence. 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.
Wrap up your essay with a short conclusion paragraph. Summarize the main points. Restate the point of the comparison that you are making.
As you read through the sample essays in this chapter, watch out for signal phrases that indicate comparison and contrasting. Also notice the organization; are the essays using subject-by-subject or point-by-point organization?
By Allison Howard – Peace Corps Volunteer: South Africa (2003–2005)
It’s a Saturday afternoon in January in South Africa. When I begin the 45-minute walk to the shops for groceries, I can hear thunder cracking in the distance up the mountain in Mageobaskloof. But at 4 p.m. the sky is still light and bright and I am sure—famous last words—I will be fine without an umbrella.
Just the basics: eggs, bread, Diet Coke in a bag slung into the crook of my elbow. Halfway from town, two black South African women—domestic workers in the homes of white Afrikaner families—stop me with wide smiles. They know me; I’m the only white person in town who walks everywhere, as they do. They chatter quickly in northern Sotho: “Missus, you must go fast. Pula e tla na! The rain, it comes!” They like me, and it feels very important to me that they do. “Yebo, yebo, mma,” I say—Yes, it’s true—and I hurry along in flip-flops, quickening my pace, feeling good about our brief but neighborly conversation. These are Venda women.
My black South African friends tell me it’s easy to tell a Venda from a Shangaan from a Xhosa from a Pedi. “These ones from Venda, they have wide across the nose and high in the cheekbones,” they say. But I don’t see it; I’m years away from being able to distinguish the nuances of ethnicity. Today, I know these women are Vendas simply because of their clothing: bright stripes of green and yellow and black fabric tied at one shoulder and hanging quite like a sack around their bodies. They’ve already extended a kindness to me by speaking in northern Sotho. It’s not their language but they know I don’t speak a word of Afrikaans (though they don’t understand why; Afrikaans is the language of white people). They know I struggle with Sotho and they’re trying to help me learn. So they speak Sotho to me and they’re delighted and amused by my fumbling responses. And I am, quite simply, delighted by their delight.
The Venda ladies are right: the rain, it comes. Lightly at first, and by habit I begin trotting to hurry my way home. Just a little rain at first and there are plenty of us out in it. I can see others up ahead on the street and others still just leaving the shops to get back before the real rain begins.
The people who are walking along this swath of tar road are black. Black people don’t live in this neighborhood—or in my town at all, for the most part. They work and board here as domestic workers, nannies, gardeners. Their families live in black townships and rural villages—some just outside of my town; others far away, in places like Venda.
Today, we’re walking together in the rain, and I’m quickening my pace because—after all, it’s raining. That’s what you do in the rain. And even though it’s coming down noticeably harder, it’s 80 degrees and I’m not cold, I’m just wet. My hair is stuck to my forehead and my T-shirt is soaked…and I’m the only one running for cover. And I think: So what? It’s just water and in the middle of the January summer, it’s warm, refreshing water. Why run? Why do we run from the rain?
In my life back in the United States, I might run because I was carrying a leather handbag, or because I wore an outfit that shouldn’t get wet. I would run because rain dishevels and messes things up. Mostly though, we run because we just do; it’s a habit. I’ve done it a hundred times: running to my car or the subway station with a newspaper sheltering my head. I have never not quickened my pace in the rain until today.
It took all of my 27 years and a move to Africa, where I don’t have a leather handbag to shelter or a pretty outfit to protect. I’m wearing an old cotton skirt and a T-shirt, and I’m drenched, and I love it. I learn things here in the most ordinary circumstances. And I feel like a smarter, better woman today because I got groceries in the rain.
But on the long walk home, positively soaked and smiling like a fool, I notice a car pulling over and a man yelling in Afrikaans to get in, get in. I look in the direction I’ve come from and several meters behind me is a woman with a baby tied to her back and an elderly man carrying bags, leading a young boy by the hand. On the road ahead, a woman about my age carries a parcel wrapped in plastic, balanced precariously on her head. There are maybe 20 people walking with me in my reverie of rain and they are black. And the man in the car is white and he’s gesturing frantically for me to get in. Why me? Why not the others? Because I’m white and it’s about race. Everything is about race here.
This man in the car is trying to do something kind and neighborly. He wants to help me and his gesture is right, but his instincts are so wrong. How do you resent someone who is, for no benefit of his own, trying to help? But I do. I resent him and I resent the world he lives in that taught him such selective kindness. This whole event unravels in a few seconds’ time. He’s leaned over and opened the car door, urging me in…and I get in. And we speed past my fellow walkers and he drops me at my doorstep before I have time to think of anything besides giving him directions.
It feels like a mistake because I’m ashamed to think what the Venda women would have felt if he’d ignored them and they had watched me climb into that car. In some ways, the whole episode seems absurd. I’m not going to atone for 400 years of South African history by walking with black people in the rain. If I’d refused his ride, he wouldn’t have thought anything besides the fact that I was certifiably crazy. That’s the thing about being here: I’m not going to change anything. But I believe it matters in some infinitesimal way that people like the Venda women, and the dozens of people who may walk alongside me on any given day, know that I’m there. In black South African culture it is polite to greet every person you pass. That’s what they do, so I do it, too. On the occasional morning, someone might greet me as “sesi,” sister. I have to believe that matters; I know it matters to me.
I was disappointed in myself for getting into the car because I acted according to the same habit that makes us think rain an inconvenience. Just as we run from the rain, I hopped into that car because I’m supposed to. Conventionally, it makes sense. But convention compels us to do so many things that don’t make any sense at all. Convention misinforms our instincts. And in a larger sense, it is convention that propels Afrikaner culture anachronistically into the future. Ten years after the supposed end of apartheid, I’m living in a world of institutionalized racism. Convention becomes institution—and it’s oppressive and it’s unjust. I know that if I’m going to make it here for two more years, I need to walk in the rain. It’s a small, wasted gesture, but it’s an uncorrupted instinct that makes me feel human.
So much about living here feels like that fraction of a second when the Afrikaner man was appealing to my conventional sensibilities and the people on the street were appealing to my human instincts. It may feel unnatural to reject those sensibilities just as, at first, it feels unnatural to walk in the rain. But if I lose a hold on my instincts here, I’ll fail myself and I’ll fail to achieve those tiny things that matter so much. It’s simple and it’s small; and it’s everything. Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Indeed. Let it rain.
- Locate the author’s thesis—what is it?
- How is the essay structured? Is it using subject-by-subject or point-by-point structure? How can you tell?
- What “points for comparison” does the author use?
- How does the author go beyond the obvious similarities and differences to interesting ideas and insights?
Comparing and Contrasting London and Washington, DC
By Scott McLean in Writing for Success
Both Washington, DC, and London are capital cities of English-speaking countries, and yet they offer vastly different experiences to their residents and visitors. Comparing and contrasting the two cities based on their history, their culture, and their residents show how different and similar the two are.
Both cities are rich in world and national history, though they developed on very different time lines. London, for example, has a history that dates back over two thousand years. It was part of the Roman Empire and known by the similar name, Londinium. It was not only one of the northernmost points of the Roman Empire but also the epicenter of the British Empire where it held significant global influence from the early sixteenth century on through the early twentieth century. Washington, DC, on the other hand, has only formally existed since the late eighteenth century. Though Native Americans inhabited the land several thousand years earlier, and settlers inhabited the land as early as the sixteenth century, the city did not become the capital of the United States until the 1790s. From that point onward to today, however, Washington, DC, has increasingly maintained significant global influence. Even though both cities have different histories, they have both held, and continue to hold, significant social influence in the economic and cultural global spheres.
Both Washington, DC, and London offer a wide array of museums that harbor many of the world’s most prized treasures. While Washington, DC, has the National Gallery of Art and several other Smithsonian galleries, London’s art scene and galleries have a definite edge in this category. From the Tate Modern to the British National Gallery, London’s art ranks among the world’s best. This difference and advantage has much to do with London and Britain’s historical depth compared to that of the United States. London has a much richer past than Washington, DC, and consequently has a lot more material to pull from when arranging its collections. Both cities have thriving theater districts, but again, London wins this comparison, too, both in quantity and quality of theater choices. With regard to other cultural places like restaurants, pubs, and bars, both cities are very comparable. Both have a wide selection of expensive, elegant restaurants as well as a similar amount of global and national chains. While London may be better known for its pubs and taste in beer, DC offers a different bar-going experience. With clubs and pubs that tend to stay open later than their British counterparts, the DC night life tends to be less reserved overall.
Both cities also share and differ in cultural diversity and cost of living. Both cities share a very expensive cost of living—both in terms of housing and shopping. A downtown one-bedroom apartment in DC can easily cost $1,800 per month, and a similar “flat” in London may double that amount. These high costs create socioeconomic disparity among the residents. Although both cities’ residents are predominantly wealthy, both have a significantly large population of poor and homeless. Perhaps the most significant difference between the resident demographics is the racial makeup. Washington, DC, is a “minority majority” city, which means the majority of its citizens are races other than white. In 2009, according to the US Census, 55 percent of DC residents were classified as “Black or African American” and 35 percent of its residents were classified as “white.” London, by contrast, has very few minorities—in 2006, 70 percent of its population was “white,” while only 10 percent was “black.” The racial demographic differences between the cities is drastic.
Even though Washington, DC, and London are major capital cities of English-speaking countries in the Western world, they have many differences along with their similarities. They have vastly different histories, art cultures, and racial demographics, but they remain similar in their cost of living and socioeconomic disparity.
- How is the essay organized? Subject-by-subject? Point-by-point? How can you tell?
- Find the thesis. How is it phrased to introduce comparison and contrast?
- How are the two cities similar?
- How are the two cities different?
- Overall, is this essay emphasizing the similarities or the differences between the two cities?
Choose one of the following options:
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
- 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 (subject-by-subject).
- Organize by individual points, in which you discuss each subject in relation to each point (point-by-point).
- Use phrases of comparison or phrases of contrast to signal to readers how exactly the two subjects are being analyzed.
After you’ve completed this chapter, activity, and paper, do a bit of comparison and contrast with this activity and assignment compared to the other rhetorical modes: how was this one different? how was it similar?
Additional Chapter Sources
This chapter has been adapted and remixed by Will Rogers from the following textbooks and materials: English Composition licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License; http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/writers-handbook/s12-revising.html licensed under CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike; and You, Writing!, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). This chapter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License; It can be found at lms.louislibraries.org under this same license.
The act of finding similarities between two or more things.
The act of finding differences between two or more things
Characteristics that are not shared or are dissimilar
Characteristics in common or that resemble one another
The Thesis Statement expresses the overall point and main ideas that will be discussed in the body. It usually appears as the last sentence of the introduction and is usually one sentence.