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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Next, the sounds were different in Idaho from those in San Francisco. In Idaho, the sounds were those typical of a farm: the barking of dogs, the mooing of the cows, the whistling of wind in the trees. The sounds of the night were always my favorite. At sundown, the coyotes started to howl, and the sound echoed eerily from the surrounding forests and hills. The frogs answered with a cacophony of croaks from the creek at the bottom of the hill, and the crickets added to the noise. The cattle and the dog joined in, too. If I listened quietly, I could hear the wind whistle around the corner of the house. Sometimes, the annoying buzz of a mosquito would add to the sound mix. The air was alive with sound, but the sounds were those of nature. I could listen or not listen because the sounds weren’t intrusive. Even in town, the rare sound of a siren only meant that the deputy was on his way home to dinner and was signaling his wife to set the table.
In San Francisco, my ears were assaulted by the sounds of the city: the honking of cars, yelling of people, and wailing of sirens. My first night in the city was a horror! I couldn’t sleep all night. My dorm room was across the street from St. Francis Memorial Hospital, right in the middle of the city. The emergency room faced the dorm. All night long, I could hear the ambulances and the sirens as they raced to the emergency entrance. I could hear the ambulance attendants talking to the nurses. I could hear the cars going by incessantly, braking and accelerating with the change of the traffic light on the corner. I couldn’t hear myself think! This was not pleasant background sounds of nature; it was intrusive, loud, human-made noise that was inescapable. I learned to fight noise with noise: my stereo against the outside world.
Last, the people seemed totally different in Idaho from those in San Francisco. (This is not an exaggeration. They were a different species altogether.) In Idaho, people were pretty much the same—color-wise and everything-else-wise. My father was a typical “blue collar” person (except his collar was usually green). He was a farmer and drove a school bus to make ends meet. He wore blue overalls over black work pants and a dark green shirt—everyday. He had one suit in his entire life. He wore it to weddings and funerals. He also had one tie and one white shirt. My mother made her own clothes and mine, too, until I got old enough to make my own, so everything had a homemade, flowered-print sort of look. People worked, went to church, cooked, ate, and lived very similar lives. They didn’t beg on the streets, and they didn’t appear to be confused about their genders, at least not in public.
In San Francisco, on the other hand, the people were a revelation! There were people in uniforms, in suits, in rags—all kinds of people. On my first walk down Market street, I saw beggars in filthy clothes sitting on the sidewalks with signs, “Help me, I’m hungry.” There was also a blind man playing an accordion, with a can for donations in front of him. Then, there were the men with makeup . . .not that there’s anything wrong with that!. However, I’d never seen a man wear makeup; I didn’t even know there were men who might want to wear makeup. I was completely confused as to why both men and women, wearing hot pants, would be standing around on street corners in the cold San Francisco weather. It seemed like a strange fashion statement to make. Added to that, there were Asians, and African Americans, and East Indians, and Greeks, and Russians, and Mexicans, and everything else. The people were confusing, fascinating, amazing, and truly wonderful!