Southwest Tennessee Community College        Composition Lessons & Resources      John Friedlander

Some Thoughts about Comparison-Contrast Essays

Overview            Example Outline Patterns            A Related Essay

We use comparison and contrast all the time in life--comparing and contrasting experiences, or people, or products, for instance--so it would seem to be a fairly natural and straightforward way of thinking. But for some reason, comparison and contrast seem to become harder in writing, and perhaps especially when we try to force the process into the five-paragraph format. Perhaps written comparison and contrast will become a little easier if we review some ideas about purpose and organization.

Purpose

Comparison-contrast essays can serve a variety of purposes, and develop a variety of tones as a result. One purpose is evaluation--trying to see which of two or more items is the best, or the most desirable, or whatever. With this kind of purpose, comparison often stresses the advantages of one item and the disadvantages of the other, treating the items as if they are in competition with each other. Sometimes the tone may become almost argumentative, as if the writer is trying to "prove" that his judgment or evaluation is correct. Some writers, though, manage to remain neutral or objective in this kind of comparison, as if it doesn't matter to them which of the items comes out best.

Another purpose of comparison-contrast is understanding--trying to get a clearer picture or better appreciation of items, events or people, by comparing and contrasting them to other items, events or people that are in some way similar. With this purpose, none of the items being compared need to be viewed as superior to the others. When the purpose of comparison is understanding or appreciation, the tone seldom becomes argumentative; the writer is more likely to be objective, or positive toward all the items, or even negative toward all the items.

Organization

Comparison-contrast essays usually follow one of two organizational patterns. When the items being compared are basically similar, and when we're looking at only a few characteristics or criteria when we compare them, we usually use a point-by-point pattern, also called organization by criteria. If we were comparing two mechanical pencils [the two pencils would be our "items"], for example, we might compare them on the bases of price, durability, and ease of use [those would be our "points" or "criteria"]. And we could organize our essay with a separate paragraph for each point--a paragraph on price, talking about both mechanical pencils in the same paragraph; then a paragraph on durability, again including both pencils in the same paragraph; then a paragraph on ease of use. With an introduction up front and a conclusion on the end, we'd have a five-paragraph theme. [Outside the artificial situation of the composition course, a comparison-contrast essay like this might examine two, or four, or even five or six criteria in this same fashion; and each criterion might be explored in a group of paragraphs, rather than just one.] 

When the items being compared are very different (as, for example, two people might be), or when we have very many criteria to consider, the point-by-point pattern doesn't work very well. If the items are very different, then the same criteria don't apply to them. If there are very many criteria to explore, the essay tends to break up into too many pieces for easy reading. So in these situations, we usually use block comparison, also called organization by item. If we were comparing two people, for example, we would have one paragraph on Fred, and then one paragraph on Tim. With an introduction up front and a conclusion on the end, we'd have a four-paragraph theme (Oh, my!). If we followed the same pattern, but compared three people, we'd have the five-paragraph theme again.


Some Example Outline Patterns
[note that these are outline patterns or paradigms, not actual outlines.]

Point-by-point pattern (organization by criteria)

I.    Introduction

II.   Point one (criterion one)
      A. Item A
      B. Item B

III.  Point two (criterion two)
      A. Item A
      B. Item B

IV. Point three (criterion three)
      A. Item A
      B. Item B

V. Conclusion

Block pattern (organization by item)

I.    Introduction

II.   Item A
      A. Point one
      B. Point two
      C. Point three
           and so on . . .

III.  Item B
      A. Point one
      B. Point two
           and so on . . .

IV. Conclusion

[Of course, if I had three items to work with, I could have a five-paragraph theme again.]

A different kind of block pattern

I.    Introduction

II.   Similarities
       A. Point one
           1. Item A
           2. Item B
       B. Point two
           1. Item A
           2. Item B
               and so on . . .

III.  Dissimilarities
       A. Point one
           1. Item A
           2. Item B
       B. Point two
           1. Item A
           2. Item B
               and so on . . .

IV. Conclusion [probably summarizing, drawing some broad conclusion about the relationship between the two items]

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