Skip to main content
Humanities Libertexts

4.8: Comparison and Contrast

  • Page ID
  • Skills to Develop

    • Determine the purpose and structure of comparison and contrast in writing
    • Explain organizational methods used when comparing and contrasting
    • Understand how to write a compare and contrast essay

    The Purpose of Comparison and Contrast in Writing

    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 doing 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 contrast two types of oranges or two types of apples to highlight subtle differences: 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 different types of apples as in the example above because they share so many of the same properties already. Rather, you might try to compare apples and oranges. The more divergent the two subjects initially seem, the more interesting a comparison essay will be.

    Writing at Work

    Comparing and contrasting is also an evaluative tool. In order to make accurate evaluations about a given topic, you must first know the critical points of similarity and difference. Comparing and contrasting is a primary tool for many workplace assessments. You have likely compared and contrasted yourself to other colleagues. Employee advancements, pay raises, hiring, and firing are typically conducted using comparison and contrast. Comparison and contrast could be used to evaluate companies, departments, or individuals.

    Exercise 4.7

    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

    • Create an outline for each of the items you chose. Use the pointbypoint organizing strategy for one of them, and use the subject organizing strategy for the other.
    • Collaboration: Please share with a classmate and compare your responses.

    The Structure of a Comparison and Contrast Essay

    The compare and contrast essay starts with a thesis that clearly states the two subjects being compared, contrasted, or both, and the reason for doing so. The thesis could lean more toward either comparing or contrasting, or balance 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 conventionally grown vegetables), and it makes a claim about the results that might prove useful to the reader.

    You may organize compare and contrast essays in one of the following two ways:

    According to the subjects themselves, discussing one then the other

    According to individual points, discussing each subject in relation to each point

    See Figure 4.1: Planning a Comparison and Contrast Essay, which illustrates the ways to organize the organic versus conventional vegetables thesis.

    organize by subject

    Figure 4.1 - Planning a Comparison and Contrast Essay

    The organizational structure you choose depends on the nature of the topic, your purpose, and your audience.

    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. See Table 4.3: Phrases of Comparison and Contrast for examples.

    Table 4.3 - Phrases of Comparison and Contrast
    Comparison Contrast
    one similarity one difference
    another similarity another difference
    both conversely
    like in contrast
    likewise unlike
    similarly while
    in a similar fashion whereas

    Writing a Comparison and Contrast Essay

    First choose whether you want to compare seemingly disparate subjects, contrast seemingly similar subjects, or compare and contrast subjects. Once you have decided on a topic, 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, as well as state what can be learned from doing so.

    The body of the essay can be organized in one of two ways: by subject or by individual points. 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. Be sure to use comparison and contrast phrases to cue the reader to the ways in which you are analyzing the relationship between the subjects.

    After you finish analyzing the subjects, write a conclusion that summarizes the main points of the essay and reinforces your thesis. See Appendix: Readings: Examples of Essays to read a sample compare and contrast essay.

    Writing at Work

    Many business presentations are conducted using comparison and contrast. The organizing strategies—by subject or individual points—could also be used for organizing a presentation. Keep this in mind as a way of organizing your content the next time you or a colleague has to present something at work.

    key takeaways

    • 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.
    • Organize by individual points, in which you discuss each subject in relation to each point.
    • Use phrases of comparison or phrases of contrast to signal to readers how exactly the two subjects are being analyzed.
    • Was this article helpful?