Compare and Contrast Help (page 3)
How Comparison and Contrast Work
When writers compare and contrast, they provide a way of classifying or judging the items they are discussing. They show how two (or more) things are similar or different when placed side by side. Consider, for example, the following paragraph. Read it carefully, and then answer the questions that follow.
- Planting a garden is a lot like having a family. Both require a great deal of work, especially as they grow and as the seasons change. As summer days lengthen, your plants become dependent on you for sustenance, much like your children depend on you for food and drink. Like a thirsty child asking for a drink of water, your plants do the same. Their bent, wilted "body" language, translated, issues a demand much the way your child requests milk or juice. When their collective thirsts are quenched, you see the way they both thrive in your care. The fussy child becomes satisfied, and the plant reaches toward the sun in a showy display. You might also find that you have to clean the space around your plants much like you would pick up toys and clothes that have been thrown helter-skelter in your toddler's room. Similarly, plants shed spent petals, roses need to be pruned, and weeds need to be pulled. To keep children healthy, parents protect their children against disease with medicine, and gardeners do the some with insect repellent. To nourish them, parents give children vitamins, and gardeners use fertilizer, as both promote healthy growth. As children grow and become adults, they need less and less care. However, here's where the similarity ends. While plants die and become dormant during winter, children still maintain a vital role in the family unit.
Practice- Finding the Facts
- What two things are being compared and contrasted here?
- In what ways are these two things similar?
- In what ways are these two things different?
(There are four similarities; list them here.)
(There is one aspect that is different; write it here.)
- The two things being compared and contrasted are a parent and a gardener.
- Gardeners are like parents in that: a) plants are dependent on gardeners as children are on parents; b) plants require care from gardeners as children do from their parents; c) gardeners tidy up after their plants, as parents do after children; and d) gardeners protect their plants, as parents protect their children.
- Gardeners are unlike parents in that their responsibility for their plants ends when the plant dies or goes into winter dormancy.
Practice- Finding the Main Idea
Now that you've answered those questions, consider one more. Read the passage again, and then answer this question:
- What is the main idea of this passage?
Did you notice that the opening sentence, "Planting a garden is a lot like having a family," is the topic sentence that expresses the main idea of this paragraph? The paragraph does mention a difference between these two roles, but notice that the topic sentence does not claim that gardeners and parents are exactly alike. Instead, it asserts that they are "a lot" alike.
As you read the paragraph about gardeners and parents, did you notice the transitional words and phrases that show you when the writer is comparing (showing similarity) and when the writer is contrasting (showing difference)? Here's the passage once more. As you read it this time, underline the transitional words and phrases you find.
- Planting a garden is a lot like having a family. Both require a great deal of work, especially as they grow and as the seasons change. As summer days lengthen, your plants become dependent on you for sustenance, much like your children depend on you for food and drink. Like a thirsty child asking for a drink of water, your plants do the same. Their bent, wilted "body" language, translated, issues a demand much the way your child requests milk or juice. When their collective thirsts are quenched, you see the way they both thrive in your care. The fussy child becomes satisfied, and the plant reaches toward the sun in a showy display. You might also find that you have to clean the space around your plants much like you would pick up toys and clothes that have been thrown helter-skelter in your toddler's room. Similarly, plants shed spent petals, roses need to be pruned, and weeds need to be pulled. To keep children healthy, parents protect their children against disease with medicine, and gardeners do the same with insect repellent. To nourish them, parents give children vitamins, and gardeners use fertilizer, as both promote healthy growth. As children grow and become adults, they need less and less care. However, here's where the similarity ends. While plants die and become dormant during winter, children still maintain a vital role in the family unit.
Writers use several transitional words and phrases to show comparison and contrast. In this paragraph, you should have underlined the following words: much like, in the same way, similarly, and however.
- These words and phrases show similarity:
|similarly||in the same way|
|likewise||in a like manner|
- These words and phrases show difference:
|on the other hand||on the contrary|
Now look more closely at the sample paragraph to examine its structure. Exactly how is this paragraph organized?
First, you've noticed that the paragraph begins with a topic sentence that makes the initial comparison: "Gardeners are like parents." Then, the paragraph identifies four ways in which gardeners are like parents:
- Plants become dependent upon gardeners as children do on parents.
- Plants require care from their gardeners as children do from parents.
- Gardeners clean up after their plants as parents do after children.
- Gardeners protect plants from "dangers" as parents protect children.
Finally, after pointing out these similarities, the paragraph concludes by pointing out an important difference between parents and gardeners:
- A gardener's responsibility for his or her plants ends with time, while a parent's doesn't.
Perhaps you noticed something else in the way this paragraph is organized. Did you notice that every time the paragraph mentions something about a parent's role, it also mentions something about a gardener? Each aspect of the gardener's role is followed by a comparable aspect of the parent's role. Thus, for every aspect of "A" (the gardener), the paragraph provides a comparable aspect of "B" (the parent) to compare or contrast. The paragraph is therefore organized like this: ABABABABAB.
This is called the point- by- point method of comparison and contrast. Each aspect of A discussed is immediately paired with that aspect of B (being dependent, requiring care, cleaning up, and protecting).
On the other hand, some writers prefer to deal first with all aspects of A and then with all aspects of B. This is called the block method of comparison and contrast; it goes AAAAABBBBB. Here is the same paragraph arranged using the block method:
- Planting a garden is a lot like having a family. A plant becomes dependent on the gardener and begs for water on a hot summer day. Gardeners also have to clean up the space around their plants as they shed spent petals, as they require pruning, and as they become choked with weeds. Gardeners also provide for the health of their plants through insecticide and fertilizer applications. A gardener's responsibility for his or her plants lessens as they die at the end of the season or they go into winter dormancy.
- Like gardeners, parents find their children dependent upon them for food and nourishment. Like gardeners, parents are constantly picking up after their children, as toys and clothes are scattered throughout the house. Like gardeners, parents provide for the nourishment and well-being of their children with vitamin supplements, food, and medicines. However, unlike gardeners, parents will find that their responsibility lessens as the child grows, but it does not come to an end.
Here, the passage treats each of the things being compared and contrasted separately—first, all aspects of the gardener, then all aspects of the parent—rather than one aspect of the gardener, one of the parent; another of the gardener, another of the parent. So the organization is quite different.
But you should notice one thing that is similar in both passages: They compare and contrast aspects of A and B that are comparable or parallel. If an aspect of A is discussed, that same aspect of B (whether similar to or different from A) must be discussed at some point in the passage. This correspondence of parts is essential for the compare and contrast technique. Look what happens, for example, when the writer does not discuss corresponding parts:
Being a parent is a lot like being a gardener. Parents must bathe, clothe, and feed their children. Parents must also create and maintain guidelines for acceptable behavior for children. Also, parents must see to it that their children get a proper education.
Gardeners nurture the plants in their gardens. They pull weeds and prune them to encourage them to grow. They feed them and apply insecticides. They watch them flower and then witness their demise.
You'll notice that this passage seems to focus on differences between gardeners and parents rather than the similarities. But is this really a fair contrast? Look at the aspects of A (the gardener) that are described here. Do they have any relationship to the aspects of B (the parent) that are described? No. And a compare and contrast passage can't be successful unless the aspects of A and B are discussed comparably. These two paragraphs don't really seem to have a point—there's no basis for comparison between gardeners and parents.
Suppose you were going to write a paragraph that compares and contrasts readers and detectives. The following lists describe five aspects of being a reader and five aspects of being a detective. Only three items in each list are comparable. Find those three items in each list and pair each one with its matching item. Remember, these items may be either similarities or differences. What's important is that they are comparable aspects.
- A reader:
- looks for clues to meaning.
- has many different types of books to read.
- can choose what book to read.
- builds vocabulary by reading.
- becomes a better reader with each book.
- A detective:
- has a dangerous job.
- gets better at solving crimes with each case.
- requires lots of training.
- doesn't get to choose which cases to work on.
- looks for clues to solve the crime.
Did you find the aspects that are comparable? Did you match reader 1 with detective 5 (similarity)? Reader 3 with detective 4 (difference)? And reader 5 with detective 2 (similarity)? If so, you did terrific work.
Here's how this information might work together in a paragraph:
In many ways, readers are a lot like detectives. Like detectives looking for clues at the scene of the crime, readers look for clues to meaning in the books that they read. And, like detectives who get better and better at solving crimes with each case, readers get better and better at understanding what they read with each book. Unfortunately for detectives, however, they cannot choose which cases they get to work on, whereas readers have the pleasure of choosing which books they'd like to read.
Why Compare and Contrast?
In addition to following the ABABAB or AAABBB structure, compare and contrast passages must, like all other passages, have a point. There's a reason that these two items are being compared and contrasted; there's something the writer is trying to point out by putting these two things side by side for analysis. This reason or point is the main idea, which is often stated in a topic sentence.
The main idea of the first paragraph you looked at in this lesson was, "Planting a garden is a lot like having a family." In this paragraph, you learned that the writer sees a significant similarity between these two roles. Likewise, in the previous paragraph, you see a significant similarity between readers and detectives.
In both cases, you may never have thought of making such comparisons. That's part of the beauty of the compare and contrast organization: It often allows you to see things in a new and interesting way. In addition, it serves the more practical function of showing you how two things measure up against each other so that you can make informed decisions, like about which car to buy (a compare and contrast essay might tell you which car is better) or which savings bond to invest in (a compare and contrast essay will show you which bond is best for you).
TIP: When you are reading a comparison/contrast essay or article, focus on the words or phrases that point out key similarities or differences.
The following are some topics that lend themselves well to comparison and contrast:
- Fashion trends of the 1960s and the 1980s
- baseball and football games
- high school years and college years
- teenagers and senior citizens
- art students and computer science majors
- fast food and health food
- living on a farm and living in an urban area
Practice exercises for this concept can be found at Reading Comprehension Organization Practice Test.
Test your knowledge at Reading Comprehension Final Practice Test.
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