"Compare and Contrast": A Poll

Did everyone have homework questions that asked you to “compare and contrast” two things (China and Japan, Addition and Subtraction, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham, whatever)?

Isn’t the concept of “contrast” already inherent in the word “compare” thus rendering the role of “contrast” in the question unnecessary and, in fact, confusing?

I remember being confused by this as a child and eventually concluding that “compare” must mean “see how things are alike.”

Please choose from the following options:

1.The concept of “contrast” is inherent in the word “compare” and therefore “contrast” is unnecessary.

  1. The concept of “contrast” is inherent in “compare” but it still has a useful role in the question. Please explain your answer.

  2. The concept of “contrast” is NOT inherent in “compare” and it is necessary to convey the full question

  3. The concept of “contrast” is inherent in “compare” but alliteration is nice.

  4. None of the above. Please explain your answer.

I didn’t vote, but I was always taught, that while it isn’t the literal definition, in these questions compare meant “find how they are the same” and contrast meant “find how they are different.” Basically it’s written like that to avoid kids just saying how they are the same or just how they are different.

Kermit the frog and lime jello are both green.

I compared those but I didn’t contrast them.

Yeah, contrast is highlighting differences and compare is highlighting similarities. They are both necessary to fully reveal the nature of different entities.

Kermit the Frog is a Muppet, and lime Jell-O is the trademarked name of a popular dessert.

See, I just contrasted them.

You compare similarities and contrast the differences.

No. After a decade of reading student writing, I can say with confidence that half of kids will have no clue that you would also like to know how things are unalike without the word contrast as a clue. Hell, 10-25% still won’t when compare and contrast is spelled out for them.

Compare could also be - lime jello is a darker green than Kermit. It’s easy to mistake that for a contrast, but it’s not.

I’ve always thought of contrast as marking things as opposites, so I’m not sure you can get a real contrast between jello and Kermit. Maybe if it was evil jello.

Sure you can. Pop Kermit in a blender; pop some jello in another blender. Fire 'em up. One is now red*, the other still green. Contrast. Q.E.D.

  • Assuming Kermit is a real live frog. If he’s a stuffed toy then he’ll probably turn off-white when blended. Still, you get your contrast.
    On a more serious note, contrast isn’t just “opposites”, since that idea isn’t well defined for most attributes of most things. What is the opposite of green? Or of a city? Or of a car?

Contrast is about significant differences, where the significance comes from either magnitude of difference, or importance of difference. Discovering which differences are significant is a large part of the learning experience. After all, two cars off the assembly line differing only in serial number are functionally identical while still being two utterly separate (and therefore utterly different) items. Getting kids to explore this concept is the whole point.

I didn’t have any homework like that. “The last book I’ve read” and “The book I’ve read over the summer”, on the other hand, would get me in trouble periodically.

You contrasted them, but I didn’t. The point is that you can compare without contrasting.

This is a really good point, and one I focus on when I’m doing writing tutoring with older/ higher-level students. In other words, a paper that says “Here are similarities. Here are differences. The end.”, won’t hold much water past elementary school. I often tell students to think about what would be more unexpected or interesting to focus on. In other words, if you’re talking about identical twins, anyone could come up with several similarities, so you should spend the bulk of your paper exploring the differences. On the other hand, if you’re discussing, say, ketchup and the nazi party, I would imagine any similarities would be far more illuminating.

In most contexts, contrasts are a subset of comparisons. If I argue that one baseball player is a better hitter than another, most would say I have made a comparison between them, even though I’ve highlighted a difference.

In the context of a homework question, however, “compare” by itself might incline the student to think that the question is more in the nature of “spot the similarities” than “spot the differences”. “Compare and contrast” makes it crystal clear that the questioner is interested in both, and removes one possible excuse for an incomplete student response.

Not if you don’t let the puppeteer take his hand out first.

The popular phrase “you can’t compare apples to oranges” implies that apples and oranges can ONLY be contrasted. We postulate that another pair of items can be constructed so that contrast is impossible. Therefore, in order not to telegraph to the student whether items are comparable and/or contrastable, you must include both options.

Most of the posts so far have assumed that we’re talking about homework questions for young kids or maybe high school.
But what about university?
Every English lit class and most humanities subjects had “compare and contrast” questions on every exam.
And yeah, I always thought it was redundant—in order to compare, you have to contrast, too.
Otherwise you’ve only stated facts, but have no way to reach a conclusion.
“Frogs and lime jello are both green, but one is slimier and grosser than the other. That’s why fancy restaurants don’t serve jello legs.”

I just had to write a short compare and contrast essay at the university level last week and it followed the above definition. My essay was on five different ecological management strategies, so it was easy to pinpoint the similarities between two or more methods as well as find stark contrasts in styles. If you want me to post an example paragraph, I can.

This reminds me of the conversations I have had with people who believe the bailiff’s instructions to the witness in a court trial, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” is redundant and asking the same question three times. It is not. Those are three different, separable concepts.

“Compare” and “contrast,” likewise, are sufficiently different concepts to warrant separate mention in homework instructions. As has been mentioned, “compare” connotes finding similarities, while “contrast” implies differences, but both words are more nuanced than that, and can have a wide range of valid observations concerning the subject matter.