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.
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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.
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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.
Essays try to provide an understanding of things that are essentially matters of interpretation, where the prospect of the final word on a subject is remote. In contrast, scientific reports try to describe something that happened (an experiment), and they are supposed to be minimally interpretive and nearly indisputable. Newspaper articles are similar
in this way, presenting the facts and just the facts (at least in theory).
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.
In short, the essayist writes to communicate her opinion on a subject in order to convince her audience to take up this opinion. This is what makes an essay.
See the examples below.
- Compare and contrast Newton's ideas of gravity with those proposed by Einstein ['compare and contrast' essay]
- Examine how the economies of Spain and China are similar ['compare' only essay]
- Explain the differences between Achaemenid Empire and Parthian Empire ['contrast' only essay]
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.
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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.
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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.
| | Block
Object 1 - Point 1
Object 1 - Point 2
Object 1 - Point 3
Object 2 - Point 1
Object 2 - Point 2
Object 2 - Point 3
| | Point-by-point
Object 1 ➤ Object 2
Object 1 ➤ Object 2
Object 1 ➤ Object 2
Compare and Contrast Structure Words
Compare and contrast structure words are transition signals which show the similarities or differences.
Below are some common examples.
.. and...not only... but also...neither... nor... just like (+ noun)similar to (+ noun)to be similar (to) to be the same as to be aliketo compare (to/with)
- In contrast
- In comparison
- By comparison
- On the other hand
- to differ from
- to be different (from)
- to be dissimilar to
- to be unlike
- Computers, although increasingly small, are not always easy to carry from one place to another.
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However, the mobile phone can be carried with ease.
- Computers are generally not very portable, whereas the mobile phone is.
- Computers differ from mobile phones in their lack of portability.
- Computers are unlike mobile phones in their lack of portability.
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.
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Here the criteria are unclear.
- Aaron is tall and strong. In contrast, Bruce is handsome and very intelligent.
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).
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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.
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Compare the following, which has much clearer criteria (contrast structure words shown in bold).
- Aaron and Bruce differ in four ways. The first difference is height. Aaron is tall, while Bruce is short.
But something else must distinguish the essay form, since fictional narratives such as short stories also in some ways present a tentative study of things,. These two forms usually differ in content and aim. Narratives tell stories about how events unfold for characters and usually try to make us feel a certain way. Essays are closer to scientific reports in that their purpose is to tell us
, most often explicitly, about the way we ought to understand something.
A second difference is strength. Aaron is strong. In contrast, Bruce is weak. A third difference is appearance. Aaron, who is average looking, differs from Bruce, who is handsome. The final difference is intelligence.
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Aaron is of average intelligence. Bruce, on the other hand, is very intelligent.
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.
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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.
Whether you want to compare two articles on the same subject or check similarity between two word documents, a text similarity checker comes in very handy.
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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.
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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.
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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
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similarities immediately, plus the similarity percentage rate and similar word count.
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.
Finally, a scientist is supposed to be inessential to her experiment and report; anyone should be able to perform the experiments, get the results, and record them in much the same way. A fiction writer relates to her writing in the
opposite way; the story is fundamentally changed when told by anyone else. The essayist, again, falls somewhere between these two
extremes. An essay’s argument should be convincing no matter who authors it—the logic of the argument should stand independent of the author—but an essay is also always an expression of the essayist’s opinion, which is by definition not
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.
In sum, whereas a scientific report aspires to be indisputable, an essay strives to give a convincing interpretation of something (and interpretation is by definition disputable). Whereas a short story aims to make us feel, an essay intends to make us think.
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