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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Compare and contrast is a common format for English essays and research papers. A compare and contrast essay describes the similarities and differences between two related people, places, things, or ideas. Teachers and professors like this format because it requires students to analyze a topic and think critically about it. Follow these steps to write a great compare and contrast essay in English.
1. Pick your topic
For a compare and contrast essay, choose two things that are in the same category (like two countries, two sports, etc.) When possible, choose something you are interested in; your passion will make your writing better.
One big mistake to avoid: Don’t try to write about a topic that’s too broad. After you choose a topic, consider narrowing it to one aspect of that topic. For example, you would need to write a book to describe all the similarities and differences between two countries. Instead, you might compare their economies, the structures of their governments, or their education systems.
2. Choose points of comparison
This is a good time to brainstorm. Make a list of all of the similarities and differences that you can think of for your topic. Then choose the points that are most relevant and interesting for your essay. Unless the instructions for your essay say otherwise, you should include both similarities and differences.
Be sure that your points of comparison aren’t too simple; it’s hard to write a paragraph about, for example, the fact that Country A is larger than Country B unless you have more information about the implications of each country’s size.
3. Organize your ideas
Now that you have two things to compare and the points you’ll compare, it’s time to organize the body of your essay. There are two ways you can organize your compare and contrast essay: Block style or point-by-point style.
Block style gives all information about one topic, and then all information about the other topic (in the same order). Here’s an example of a basic block style outline:
- Country A’s economy
- dependent on oil
- strong government control
- relatively low poverty rate
- modest national debt
- Country B’s economy
- dependent on oil
- strong government control
- relatively high poverty rate
- large national debt
In a point-by-point essay, each point of comparison is discussed for both topics in turn. Here’s the same information as above organized in a point-by-point outline:
- Main industry
- Country A: oil
- Country B: oil
- Government control of economy
- Country A: strong
- Country B: strong
- Poverty rate
- Country A: lower
- Country B: higher
- National debt
- Country A: modest
- Country B: large
4. Add a strong introduction and conclusion
Studies show that we remember the beginning and end of what we read more than the middle. Therefore, you should be sure your essay has a strong introduction and conclusion.
The introduction needs to catch the reader’s attention. You can do this with a surprising fact, a bold statement, or an interesting quote. Then tell the reader where your essay is going: What two things are you comparing? What are you going to say about them?
In your conclusion, summarize the main points of your essay. Suggest a next step for the reader or simply leave them believing that what you had to say was important.
5. Take a break, and then revise
After you write your first draft, wait at least a day before you read it again. Is your organization clear? Are there points that need more support from an example, definition, or fact? If you’re unsure, ask a friend to read your essay and tell you what they understand from it. What did they find unclear or unconvincing?
6. Edit for grammar, spelling, and mechanics
Once you’ve edited the your essay for content, it’s time to make sure the actual writing is correct. To check your grammar, try reading your essay sentence by sentence, but backwards, starting with the last sentence. This force you to think about each sentence individually rather than following the organization of the essay as a whole. Check your spelling, and then be sure you’ve met your teacher’s instructions for font size, spacing, and headers.