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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To write a compare/contrast essay, you’ll need to make NEW connections and/or express NEW differences between two things. The key word here…is NEW!
- Choose 2 things that could go in the same category, but are also quite different. Good choices might be:
- Basketball & Football (both sports)
- Horses & Cats (both animals, but different in many ways)
- Writing & Singing (both art forms, but different in many ways)
- Gather your ideas by writing down characteristics of each thing. Note the differences and similarities between them.
- Ask yourself these important questions before you begin writing your draft:
Does my instructor want me to compare AND contrast, or am I only being asked to do one of those things?
Some instructors prefer that you only write about the differences between two things, while others want you to focus on explaining the similarities as well. Either way, you'll need to make sure that your thesis statement reflects your instructor's expectations. For example, if I wanted to write about Social Networking sites, I'd need to write different thesis statements depending on my compare/contrast assignment.
Sample thesis statement for contrast paper: In terms of social networking sites, Facebook focuses on presenting your daily life to others, whereas MySpace allows you to focus more on demonstrating your personal style.
Sample thesis statement for compare/contrast paper: While both Facebook and MySpace allow you to meet other users who have similar interests, only MySpace allows you to demonstrate your personal style.
Are these 2 things similar and/or different, in at least one meaningful way?
If you want to write a successful compare/contrast essay, you'll need to avoid writing about really obvious differences and similarities. For example:
- We all know that horses are larger than cats.
- We also know that basketball teams contain less players than football teams.
Tell us something we don't know (or might not notice)!
It would be better to write about how sensitive both horses and cats are to human needs and emotions. You could also suggest that though both basketball and football require a lot of teamwork, basketball players are expected to be a lot more versatile than football players.
You don't have to be a genius to write an interesting compare/contrast essay--you just have to look at ordinary things in a new way!
Do I know enough about my topic to write an effective compare/contrast essay?
Unless you're being asked to do some research as part of your compare/contrast project, make sure that you choose 2 things that you feel comfortable discussing, at length.
Your instructor may ask for multiple similarities and differences--make sure you're prepared to write a well-developed, meaningful essay on a topic that you know well before you get started!
Organizing Your Compare and Contrast Paper
There are two primary ways to organize your compare and contrast paper.
Chunking: placing all of the information for each individual subject in one place (chunk), and then using similarities as transitions.
Here’s a sample outline:
- Jane is distinct because…
- Jane is similar to Alice in these ways
- Alice is distinct because…
Piecing: giving pieces of the information for each individual subject in each paragraph—arranging the information by topic rather than by subject.
Here’s a sample outline:
- Differences and Similarities in Jane and Alice’s appearances
- Differences and Similarities in Jane and Alice’s backgrounds
- Differences and Similarities in Jane and Alice’s interests