Introducing Comparison and Contrast

It's possible to write an essay that only compares two (or more) items, only focusing on what is similar about these items; it's also possible to write an essay that only contrasts two (or more) items, only focusing on what is different about these items. In general, however, comparison and contrast are used together for a very good reason: it's easier to fully explain the similarities between two items when you also explain the differences (and vice-versa).

Comparison and contrast essays are incredibly common in college.   You will probably end up writing comparison and contrasts of items in history, political science, math, chemistry, and other English classes.   I know that when  I teach English 102, Introduction to Literature, one of the central assignments in the class is to compare and contrast two poems.

It goes beyond college, however. Where do you want to eat tonight--Burgers and Beer or Chili's?     Haven't you ever had this kind of conversation with a friend or a family member? Well, that is comparison and contrast.   You are examining whether or not you want to go to one restaurant or another--and you are weighing the strengths and weaknesses of each place. That's exactly what you do with a comparison and contrast essay.

The key to a comparison and contrast essay is establishing a basis for comparison--that is, making sure that the items you are going to compare can actually be compared.   What do I mean?     Well, look at this picture below:

kitty and monkey

Can these two animals be compared?   Is there enough information that is similar between them that you can compare them?   Well, make a list of items that are similar:

    • Both mammals
    • Both furry
    • Both have tails
    • Both have eyes
    • Both have feet
    • Both breathe oxygen

...and so on. So, yes, these two animals can be compared.   They can also be contrasted--meaning that there are enough differences between them to distinguish one from the other. After all, one is a monkey and one is a kitty--two different species with entirely different evolutionary histories.

Now let's look at two more pictures and see if we can compare them:

Rally monkey holding sign reading Image of the castle at Lindisfarne, England

Can you compare these?     What do they have in common?   Well...

    • Both are pictures
    • Both pictures have organic matter in them
    • And, um...that's about it

So, no, it would not be a good idea to write a comparison and contrast essay about these two pictures--they are certainly very different from one another, but there is simply no basis for comparison between them that would allow you to write an interesting essay.  

In the other sections of this module, you'll learn more facts about comparison and contrast essays, including how to organize and structure them (a big key).