Compare and Contrast

Learning Objectives

  • Describe techniques for writing comparison essays

Compare & Contrast Essay

Venn diagram comparing Saint Bernards and Cockapoo dogs.

Figure 1. Comparing and contrasting means looking for similarities and differences between two things, which you can see nicely in a Venn diagram.

Compare and contrast is a rhetorical style that discusses the similarities and differences of two or more things: ideas, concepts, items, places, etc. This rhetorical style is one that you’ll see often as a complete essay, but you may also use it quite a lot within paragraphs of any kind of essay in which you need to make some kind of comparison to help illustrate a point.

A compare and contrast essay does two things: It discusses the similarities and differences of at least two different things. First, you must find a basis of comparison to be sure that the two things have enough in common. After that, you identify their differences. You may structure the compare and contrast essay using either the alternating method (stating one aspect of one thing and immediately discussing the same aspect of the other item and how they are similar or different) or the block method (discussing all of the aspects of one thing and then discussing all of the aspects of another).

NOTE: When you write a compare and contrast essay, be sure that the two things have enough in common. Even if you have many differences to analyze, if the topics or items you’re comparing don’t have much in common, your audience may wonder why you’re comparing the two things. For example, you would have a difficult time writing an essay comparing and contrasting your favorite television program with a popular vacation spot in your state. It would make a lot more sense to compare two different television shows or two different vacation spots. You also don’t want to bite off more than you can chew. It might be better to compare driving laws in two different states rather than driving laws across the nation.

Techniques

Keep the following in mind:

Basis of Comparison

In order for your essay to be a success, you need to have a basis of comparison about the things that you’re comparing.  Do the things have enough in common for it to make sense to write about them in a compare and contrast essay? For example, it would make sense to compare in-person and online courses because the two have enough in common to justify discussing the similarities and differences of the two types of courses.

Alternating Method

When you use the alternating method, you discuss one aspect of the first item and then immediately discuss the same aspect of the second item. You may discuss the amount of computer time required for an in-person course and an online course. You may state that while you need to work on the computer for both courses, you would need to spend twice as much time on the computer for the online course.

Block Method

When you use the block method, you discuss one subject and then discuss the next subject. Usually, you would write one paragraph discussing all aspects of the first subject and then write a second paragraph discussing all aspects of the second subject and so on.

For example, if you begin with a discussion of the online course, you might discuss the amount of computer time required, the costs, the typical student success rate, and the usual instructional pedagogy. Next, you would turn to your discussion of an in-person course and discuss each of those aspects for the in-person course.

With the block method, you do not go back and forth in your discussion. First, you focus on the first subject (the online course) and then you focus on the second subject (the face-to-face course).

Combination Method

Finally, when you combine the two, you’re writing a compare and contrast essay that follows the combination method. You may spend a couple of body paragraphs using the alternating method and then decide to switch to the block method for a deeper analysis of each of the subjects.

As you can imagine, no one approach always works best, depending on the subjects, which is probably why the combination method evolved. In any case, each of these methods is not meant as a formula; use these approaches to guide you as you master this style of writing.

Example Essay

Click here to see a traditional or typical sample compare and contrast essay from a beginning writing class. In this assignment, the student was asked to write an essay comparing and contrasting two items or concepts and to follow MLA guidelines in the essay.

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