In academic writing (as in life!) we frequently need to compare and contrast things. Sometimes this will be the subject and focus of the whole essay ; other times it may just be a means of providing evidence and material for your argument. Either way, what you are doing is zooming in on the key similarities (compare) and differences (contrast). You may, for example, be asked to compare two (or more) models, theories or approaches. On a more statistical or quantitative level, you may be asked to compare two sets of data or graphical information.
Analyse and evaluate the relative merits of the Marxist, Feminist and Psychoanalytical interpretations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. (Literature)
Compare and contrast Iceland and Japan with reference to population size and density, land area and use and life expectancy. (Geography)
Describe and explain the key similarities and differences between the economies of Germany and Greece in terms of GDP, average income, employment levels and productivity. (Economics)
Analysing two things side by side in this way is always revealing, often in unexpected ways, and frequently leads to a deeper understanding of the topic. Comparing and contrasting is a valuable exercise because it enables you to see familiar things in new ways, to make connections and discover affinities between things.
In the examples given, you will be expected to describe the essential similarities and differences in each case, but also to draw conclusions. In other words, what has the comparison revealed, overall, and what have you learnt from the exercise of comparing? What is being assessed here is not only your ability to summarize and process often large amounts of information, but also your ability to make inferences, identify patterns, spot significant details and trends – to critically evaluate, in short.
The first stage is to brainstorm so as to generate some initial ideas that you can use in your comparison. The structure and sequence of points can come later – for now it is important to think about the title and the comparison in question and start to make notes.
Take the example of a simple analogy - “the human body is like an engine” (an analogy is, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, “ a comparison between one thing and another, for the purpose of explanation or clarification”)
To begin with it would be a good idea to make a list of all the points of similarity between the two, for example -
Both require fuel
Both are complex systems
Both require maintenance
Both can convert power into motion
Both need periods of rest/inactivity
Both can get overheated or break down…
Both have a number of different components, with different functions ..
As you are doing this you will very soon begin to think of ways in which they differ from eachother. Make another list for these – for example,
One is a living organism , the other is a machine…
One is made of metal. the other is made up of cells ,,,
The structure of an academic compare/contrast essay will be somewhat more complex than this simple “similarities and differences” plan of course, and will to a large extent be determined by the title. The Iceland/Japan essay above, for example, asks you to consider 5 sub-headings (population size and density, land area etc) Therefore you will need to a) make a plan, and b) gather evidence from your reading and make notes under these headings. As with any essay you will need to frame the body of the essay with an introduction and a conclusion. To use another analogy, an essay is like a journey – you need to signpost where you are heading, both at the beginning and throughout, and to make the reader feel a sense of having conclusively arrived at the end. Bear this in mind when you are planning
The readability and effectiveness of your essay will depend not only upon its use of this kind of structured approach, but also on the fluent and varied use of language – to describe similarities and differences certainly, but also degrees of similarity and difference.Try to use a range of different words and expressions for this. The following are some examples –
Words and phrases for similarity -
x is like/alike/similar to/resembles/is closely related to/shares characteristics with/has much in common with y…
In the same way/in a similar way/similarly…
Words and phrases for difference
X is unlike/different from/differs from/dissimilar to/contrary to/in contrast to
In a rather different way/conversely
Words and phrases for degrees of difference/similarity (adverbs)
Totally/completely/entirely… (different from/the same as etc)
Virtually/practically/more or less…
Almost/nearly/not quite/only just…
This webpage, from the University of Toronto, gives a clear overview of how best to approach and structure the compare/contrast essay, with examples :
The following books all contain useful chapters on the skills and language of comparing and contrasting, with practice exercises :
Bailey, S, Academic Writing: A Handbook for International Students, 3rd. edn (2011), London, Routledge (pp. 119-125)
Harrison, M, Jakeman, P and Paterson,K, Improve Your Grammar, (2012), Basingstoke, Palgrave (pp.32-35)
Jordan, R., Academic Writing Course (1999), Harlow, Pearson (pp. 51-57)