What is a comparative essay?
A comparative essay asks that you compare at least two (possibly more) items. These items will differ depending on the assignment. You might be asked to compare
- positions on an issue (e.g., responses to midwifery in Canada and the United States)
- theories (e.g., capitalism and communism)
- figures (e.g., GDP in the United States and Britain)
- texts (e.g., Shakespeare’s Hamletand Macbeth)
- events (e.g., the Great Depression and the global financial crisis of 2008–9)
Although the assignment may say “compare,” the assumption is that you will consider both the similarities and differences; in other words, you will compare and contrast.
Make sure you know the basis for comparison
The assignment sheet may say exactly what you need to compare, or it may ask you to come up with a basis for comparison yourself.
- Provided by the essay question: The essay question may ask that you consider the figure of the gentleman in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The basis for comparison will be the figure of the gentleman.
- Developed by you: The question may simply ask that you compare the two novels. If so, you will need to develop a basis for comparison, that is, a theme, concern, or device common to both works from which you can draw similarities and differences.
Develop a list of similarities and differences
Once you know your basis for comparison, think critically about the similarities and differences between the items you are comparing, and compile a list of them.
For example, you might decide that in Great Expectations, being a true gentleman is not a matter of manners or position but morality, whereas in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, being a true gentleman is not about luxury and self-indulgence but hard work and productivity.
The list you have generated is not yet your outline for the essay, but it should provide you with enough similarities and differences to construct an initial plan.
Develop a thesis based on the relative weight of similarities and differences
Once you have listed similarities and differences, decide whether the similarities on the whole outweigh the differences or vice versa. Create a thesis statement that reflects their relative weights. A more complex thesis will usually include both similarities and differences. Here are examples of the two main cases:
- Differences outweigh similarities:
While Callaghan’s “All the Years of Her Life” and Mistry’s “Of White Hairs and Cricket” both follow the conventions of the coming-of-age narrative, Callaghan’s story adheres more closely to these conventions by allowing its central protagonist to mature. In Mistry’s story, by contrast, no real growth occurs.
- Similarities outweigh differences:
Although Darwin and Lamarck came to different conclusions about whether acquired traits can be inherited, they shared the key distinction of recognizing that species evolve over time.
Come up with a structure for your essay
- Alternating method: Point-by-point patternIn the alternating method, you find related points common to your central subjects A and B, and alternate between A and B on the basis of these points (ABABAB …). For instance, a comparative essay on the French and Russian revolutions might examine how both revolutions either encouraged or thwarted innovation in terms of new technology, military strategy, and the administrative system.
A Paragraph 1 in body new technology and the French Revolution B Paragraph 2 in body new technology and the Russian Revolution A Paragraph 3 in body military strategy and the French Revolution B Paragraph 4 in body military strategy and the Russian Revolution A Paragraph 5 in body administrative system and the French Revolution B Paragraph 6 in body administrative system and the Russian Revolution
Note that the French and Russian revolutions (A and B) may be dissimilar rather than similar in the way they affected innovation in any of the three areas of technology, military strategy, and administration. To use the alternating method, you just need to have something noteworthy to say about both A and B in each area. Finally, you may certainly include more than three pairs of alternating points: allow the subject matter to determine the number of points you choose to develop in the body of your essay.
When do I use the alternating method? Professors often like the alternating system because it generally does a better job of highlighting similarities and differences by juxtaposing your points about A and B. It also tends to produce a more tightly integrated and analytical paper. Consider the alternating method if you are able to identify clearly related points between A and B. Otherwise, if you attempt to impose the alternating method, you will probably find it counterproductive.
- Block method: Subject-by-subject patternIn the block method (AB), you discuss all of A, then all of B. For example, a comparative essay using the block method on the French and Russian revolutions would address the French Revolution in the first half of the essay and the Russian Revolution in the second half. If you choose the block method, however, do not simply append two disconnected essays to an introductory thesis. The B block, or second half of your essay, should refer to the A block, or first half, and make clear points of comparison whenever comparisons are relevant. (“Unlike A, B . . .” or “Like A, B . . .”) This technique will allow for a higher level of critical engagement, continuity, and cohesion.
A Paragraphs 1–3 in body How the French Revolution encouraged or thwarted innovation B Paragraphs 4–6 in body How the Russian Revolution encouraged or thwarted innovation
When do I use the block method? The block method is particularly useful in the following cases:
- You are unable to find points about A and B that are closely related to each other.
- Your ideas about B build upon or extend your ideas about A.
- You are comparing three or more subjects as opposed to the traditional two.
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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