Comparing and Contrasting

In conversation, most people when asked to compare two people or items will immediately offer examples of differences.  In writing, however, to compare means to address similarities while to contrast means to expound on differences.  Thus, when instructors ask students to compare cars with trucks or fish with birds, they mean to focus on ways the two things are alike.  One word of caution: If a history professor asks students to compare the North and South prior to the onset of the American Civil War, that professor probably means contrast.  In such a case, students should request clarification before assuming one or the other is intended.  Occasionally instructors will want both similarities and differences and will notify the student of that desire.

Suppose the writing assignment is to compare or contrast two different items that serve essentially the same purpose such as a teacup and a mug.  The next step would be to brainstorm what is known about each item.  Let's begin with the teacup:

  1. comes with saucer for spoon, lemon slices, etc.
  2. small--nice for small hands
  3. delicate, fragile
  4. decorative
  5. holds small amount of liquid
  6. fancy

Now let's examine the mug:

  1. no saucer
  2. large
  3. sturdy, often for travel
  4. decorative
  5. holds large amount of liquid
  6. casual

The next step is to determine whether the differences outweigh the similarities, and in this case, they do.  However, a good beginning may be to introduce the two items in terms of their similarities.  The next step after deciding is to develop a topic sentence if the assignment is for a paragraph or a thesis statement if the assignment is to be an essay.  Below is a sample paragraph that serves as an introduction for an essay on this topic:

Coffee and tea are experiencing a new surge in popularity.  To capitalize on this increase in favor manufacturers are turning out new styles of cups and mugs at an astonishing rate, and some are reproducing old favorites to please the tastes--pun intended--of a more traditional market..  Some coffee and tea aficionados drink their coffee from a mug and their tea from a cup.  Others always prefer a mug, and, of course, there are those who go upscale by remaining loyal to the cup.  What's the real difference?  Why are the two not interchangeable?  The truth is mugs and cups differ greatly in terms of size and volume, fragility of construction, and, of course, ability to fit the formality of the occasion.

This paragraph alerts readers to the fact that more information will be forthcoming.  That information will deal with both types of vessels in terms of size, sturdiness, and formal function, most likely with a paragraph devoted to each.  But truthfully, there are two ways to present information in a comparison/contrast piece of writing:  Block and point-by-point.

The block method examines one item at a time.  Thus, an essay on the mug and teacup would treat first the mug in terms of its size, sturdiness, and formality of function.  Then it would treat the teacup using those same three bases of comparison.  Point-by-point on the other hand, functions as a sort of volleying of ideas.  For example, the mug would be described in terms of size and volume.  Then, the teacup would be treated in terms of its size and volume.  Next the sturdiness of the mug would be examined, followed by the teacup.  Finally, the mug would be considered as appropriate or inappropriate for formal occasion, and the teacup likewise. The structure of a block method essay on this topic might look something like this:

I.    Introduction
II.   Mug
    a.    size
    b.    sturdiness
    c.    formality
III.  Teacup
    a.    size
    b.    sturdiness
    c.    formality
IV.  Conclusion

The same information in point-by-point format would be presented as such:

I.    Introduction
II.   Mug and Teacup--size/volume
III.  Mug and Teacup--sturdiness
IV.  Mug and teacup--formality
V.   Conclusion

Now let's look at a paragraph that contrasts mugs and teacups:    

The boss is coming for dinner.  The menu's planned.  And, of course, with dessert there will be coffee or tea.  I ask myself, "Do I have enough cups to match the dishes, and do they all have matching saucers for spoons, lemons, and whatever else he might need?  What if he prefers mugs? What difference does it make anyway?"  Well, mugs and teacups differ in terms of size and volume, sturdiness, and degree of formality.  Mugs, for example, hold more liquid, anywhere from eight to sixteen ounces whereas a teacup is only good for about six.  Also, mugs are sturdier and often easier to hold than delicate little teacups made for smaller hands.  Finally, mugs create a more relaxed atmosphere, one conducive to comfort and conversation.  That settles it: Although the teacup is generally prettier and more formal, we're going to use mugs tonight.

Note that the point-by-point method is used in this paragraph.  Here's a comparable paragraph using the block method:

Coffee made its way to Europe a few years before tea, but tea is by far the older beverage.  It stands to reason that the teacup was around before the mug, but does it really matter which is used for what?  Most people have a preference, but why?  Perhaps the preferences are due to the fact that mugs and teacups differ in terms of size and volume, sturdiness, and degree of formality.  Mugs are huge, with the popular latte mugs of today holding up to 20 or so ounces of liquid.  And the mug is sturdy.  It feels good in the hand on a cold winter morning.  That coffee isn't going anywhere; it's safe in the mug.  Mugs are casual.  They speak of wrapping oneself in a blanket, curling up with a book, sipping a beloved brew.  The teacup is a tiny little thing of delicate china or porcelain.  Forget taking it with you in the car; you'll finish its contents before you even get the engine started.  Of course, nothing will have time to get too cold. You're sure to break that teacup if you don't hold it just so with the handle between the index and thumb and the pinkie extended, so please don't take it away from its saucer to the outer reaches of the front porch, or you'll be buying Mom a new cup.  When you've got company coming, President Bush, the emperor of Japan, you'll need that teacup to dress the table.  But if it's anyone you want to have fun with, use a mug.

Notice that all the mug details are presented first in the order first expressed in the topic sentence.  Then, the teacup examples are provided.  Finally, the paragraph concludes with a preference.  Sometimes contrast writing lends itself well to the voicing of a preference; however, it is not an essential element and would not necessarily be appropriate in a situation where one is contrasting two supervisors or two close friends.

Take a moment now to consider the similarities between two items such as the paperclip and the staple.  Both hold groups of paper together.  Both improve the appearance of a document by adding a finishing touch.  Both are relatively inexpensive.  The differences are in cost, ease of use, and preference of the individual.  Here is a short paragraph that compares the two:

Each semester in the five or so classes I teach, my students when submitting their papers fret over how to hold them together.  The most frequently asked question to me in my professional arena is, "Do you have a stapler?"  I invariably reply with "Yes, I have a stapler.  It's in my office.  I'm not going to get it.  Just put your paper in the stack.  I'm all grown up and responsible and do not often lose or separate students' work."  Occasionally I'll bring my coveted stapler to class.  Likewise, I'll bring paperclips to class upon occasion.  To me they are interchangeable;  to the IRS, however, they are not.  Staples and paperclips hold pages of documents together. They both give an ordinary paper a look of completeness, an official air. Both paperclips and staples are pretty cheap.  While the paperclip costs a little more, it doesn't need a machine to apply it or a tool to remove it.  So why does the IRS forbid the stapling of the W2 to the tax form?  I suspect it's because they can't afford staple removers.  I have one somewhere, but  I can't ever find it.  I use fingernails instead.  What's the difference?

Note that the technique employed in this paragraph is the point-by-point method; however, both items are actually dealt with together.  This is sometimes the case in the writing of a comparison.