A comparison essay compares and contrasts two things. That is, it points out the similarities and differences (mostly focusing on the differences) of those two things. The two things usually belong to the same class (ex. two cities, two politicians, two sports, etc.). Relatively equal attention is given to the two subjects being compared. The essay may treat the two things objectively and impartially. Or it may be partial, favoring one thing over the other (ex. "American football is a sissy's game compared to rugby").

The important thing in any comparison essay is that the criteria for comparison should remain the same; that is, the same attributes should be compared. For example, if you are comparing an electric bulb lamp with a gas lamp, compare them both according to their physical characteristics, their history of development, and their operation.

electric bulb lamp
physical characteristics
duration of light 
brightness 
noise 
materials that compose it

gas lamp
physical characteristics
duration of light 
brightness 
noise 
materials that compose it

history of development 
inventor
dates of invention and development 
process of development 
first models
acceptance by society

history of development
inventor 
dates of invention and development
process of development 
etc.

operation (how it works)
type of energy 
how the energy is used

operation
ditto
ditto


tomato plant
physical description
leaves
stem
flowers
fruit


corn plant

ditto

growth requirements
type of soil needed

ditto

amount of
"
"
"
light
heat
water
fertilizer

Narrow your focus (in this essay, as in any essay). For example, if you compare two religions, focus on one particular aspect which you can discuss in depth and detail, e.g., sin in Buddhism vs. sin in Christianity, or salvation in two religions. Or if your topic is political, you might compare the Conservative attitude to old growth logging vs. the Green Party's attitude to old growth logging, or the Conservative attitude to the Persian Gulf War vs. the NDP attitude to the same war.

Each paragraph should deal with only one idea and deal with it thoroughly. Give adequate explanation and specific examples to support each idea. The first paragraph introduces the topic, captures the reader's attention, and provides a definite summary of the essay. It may be wise to end the first paragraph with a thesis statement that summarizes the main points of difference (or similarity). For example, "Submarines and warships differ not only in construction, but in their style of weapons and method of attack." This gives the reader a brief outline of your essay, allowing him to anticipate what's to come. Each middle paragraph should begin with a topic sentence that summarizes the main idea of that paragraph (ex. "The musical styles of Van Halen and Steely Dan are as differing in texture as are broken glass and clear water"). An opening sentence like this that uses a metaphor or simile not only summarizes the paragraph but captures the reader's attention, making him want to read on. Avoid a topic sentence that is too dull and too broad (ex. "There are many differences in the musical styles of Van Halen and Steely Dan").

The structure of the comparison essay may vary. You may use simultaneous comparison structure in which the two things are compared together, feature by feature, point by point. For example, "The electric light bulb lasts 80 hours, while the gas lamp lasts only 20 hours . . . ." Or as in this example (comparing two American presidents):

Consider how perfectly Harding met the requirements for president. Wilson was a visionary who liked to identify himself with "forward-looking men"; Harding was as old-fashioned as those wooden Indians which used to stand in front of cigar stores, "a flower of the period before safety razors." Harding believed that statemanship had come to its apogee in the days of McKinley and Foraker. Wilson was cold. Harding was an affable small-town man, at ease with "folks"; he was an ideal companion to play poker with all Saturday night. Wilson had always been difficult of access; Harding was accessible to the last degree. etc.

Don't use simultaneous structure all the way through the essay, however. It becomes monotonous. Use it sparingly. For most of the essay, use parallel order structure.

In parallel order structure you compare the two things separately but take up the same points in the same order. For example, you may spend half a paragraph on "thing A" and the other half of the paragraph on the corresponding characteristics of "thing B." Or, if you have enough material, devote one paragraph to the physical characteristics of an electric bulb lamp, and the next paragraph to the physical characteristics of the gas lamp.

Or say everything there is to say about the electric bulb lamp (its physical characteristics, history of development and operation), followed by everything there is to say about the gas lamp.

For the sake of variety you may switch to simultaneous comparison at one point in the essay, and then switch back to parallel order structure for the rest of the essay. In fact, there are many ways to structure a comparison essay; use whichever organization works best for your particular paper. Here are a few sample organizational methods. "A" stands for "thing A" (ex. electric lamp) and "B" stands for "thing B" (ex. gas lamp). Each number (1,2,3, etc.) stands for a different aspect of that thing (ex. physical characteristics, operation, history of development).

A1

A1 A1  
B1 A2 B1  
A2 A3 B2 Each separate line stands
B2 B1 A2 for a separate paragraph
A3 B2 A3  
B3 B3 B3  

The following essay uses parallel order structure throughout. Notice how paragraph "B1" considers the same attributes as "A1" in the same corresponding order. Both discuss the shape of the instruments, the sound holes, the number of strings, the quality of the sound produced, etc. in the same sequence. This makes it easy for the reader to absorb. Notice too that when the writer discusses the characteristics of "thing B" she contrasts them with "thing A" (ex. "Unlike the balanced sound of the teardrop dulcimer, the treble sound in the hourglass dulcimer is much more prominent than its bass sound"). The main purpose of the comparison essay, after all, is not just listing the separate characteristics of each thing, but contrasting them with each other.

A COMPARISON BETWEEN TWO APPALACHIAN DULCIMERS

Late in the 17th century, the early settlers in the Appalachian mountains created an instrument which combined the sounds of the bagpipes and the harpsichord: the Appalachian dulcimer. This beautiful instrument was brought down from the mountains during the folk music revival of the sixties and since then has been steadily increasing in popularity. Two varieties have become widely used by North American folk musicians: the tear drop dulcimer and the hourglass dulcimer. These two types of dulcimers differ in their physical characteristics, their sound, and in the way they are played.

The shape of the teardrop dulcimer allows it to produce a full, strong sound. As its name implies, it is shaped like a teardrop and it has either one large central sound hole or two smaller ones. It can have from three to six strings which can be tuned in any key. The sound box of the teardrop dulcimer is usually two to four inches in depth and the sound it produces is strong and loud. Because of the round shape of the instrument, its sound is a rich balance of the bass and treble modulations.

The way in which the teardrop dulcimer is held when being played allows the musician to play a variety of styles of music. It is held flat against the chest like a guitar, with the left hand pressing the strings down on the fretboard while the right hand strums or picks all of the strings to produce a droning sound. The music created using this method is simple and is usually used to accompany a voice or other instruments. In the modern method, the left hand plays all the strings in newly developed chord patterns while the right hand can strum or pick a melody. This method allows the musician to play complex music in styles ranging from classical to rock and roll. Using the modern method, the teardrop dulcimer can be played as accompaniment or as a solo instrument.

The hourglass dulcimer, because of its unique shape, produces a soft, gentle sound. It is shaped like an hourglass with the top half (which is nearest to the tuning pegs) being smaller than the bottom half. There are two small sound holes on each half of the instrument. Like the teardrop dulcimer, it can have from three to six strings. The sound box of the hourglass dulcimer is usually one to two inches deep; therefore, its sound is much softer than that of the teardrop dulcimer which has a deeper sound box. Because of the narrow channel between the two halves of the hourglass dulcimer, the bass and treble modulations are separated to produce a stereo effect. Unlike the balanced sound of the teardrop dulcimer, the treble sound in the hourglass dulcimer is much more prominent than its bass sound.

The position in which the hourglass dulcimer is played limits its versatility as an instrument. It is usually placed flat across the player's lap with the tuning pegs on the left. Although you can play it like a guitar this would be difficult since it does not have a narrow neck like the teardrop dulcimer and it would be strenuous for the player to extend his arm around the box to play it. Therefore, the "guitar position" is seldom used. The traditional method of playing dulcimers is used most often on the hourglass dulcimer using a small wooden dowel, held by the left hand, to play the melody string. The new method of playing is used by some musicians but chording is difficult when the instrument is lying flat across the knees. Because of its soft sound and its shape the hourglass dulcimer is less versatile than the teardrop dulcimer and is best suited to play traditional simple folk music accompanying a singer or soft sounding instruments like the guitar or mandolin.

You may find yourself using certain expressions in a comparison essay. They are listed here, for your convenience, so you will use them correctly. Besides common words such as "but" and "however" which show transition and contrast, you may use these expressions:

Cats are lazy. In contrast, dogs are livelier.

In contrast with cats, dogs are livelier.

Contrasted with cats, dogs are livelier.

Cats are lazy. In comparison, dogs are livelier.

In comparison with cats, dogs are livelier.

Compared with cats, dogs are livelier.

whereas or while (do not put a comma after these words)

not as . . . as (Cats are not as fun to play with as dogs)

different from or different than

distinguish from (A cat's diet is distinguished from a dog's diet by its high protein content)


Some comparison essays have ordinary titles (ex. "Two Hunters of the Savannah" or "A Comparison between Two Appalachian Dulcimers".) It may be preferable, however, if your title reflects yourattitude to the things being compared (ex. "The Zing of Irish Spring or the Love of Gentle Dove" or "the Advantages of Swimming over Running").

It may help to compose an outline before you begin writing. Here is a sample outline:

The Electric Lamp vs. The Gas Lamp

1PP: Introduction and thesis statement

thesis: "The Electric lamp differs from the gas lamp in its history of development and its physical characteristics, and it is more efficient in its operation."

2PP: history of development

  • inventor
  • dates of invention and development
  • process of development
  • first models
  • acceptance by society

3PP: physical characteristics

  • duration of light
  • brightness
  • noise
  • materials that compose it

4PP: operation (how it works)

  • type of energy
  • how the energy is used

5PP: summation and concluding thoughts

THE ZING OF IRISH SPRING OR THE LOVE OF GENTLE DOVE?

 

The simple bar soap of yesterday has been washed down the drain. Today there are as many varieties of soap as there are types of personalities. Irish Spring and Dove are two of the many examples that are on the "opposite ends of the shelf". They differ not only by their sensory and physical characteristics, but also by the people who use them and how they are sold.

 

Irish Spring and Dove contrast in their smell, texture and physical appearance. Irish Spring has a strong smell. It dominates the air, and the scent of a fresh bar will shoot like an arrow through the rest of the house. Entering the bathroom, one is likely to crinkle his nose in defense as the smell blasts like a rocket into the sensors of the nares. The powerful smell gives you a feeling of energy and life. Its effect can be compared to the "wide awake" feeling one gets when sniffing smelling salts. As the name implies, the scent of Irish Spring reminds us of a vital, budding, fresh spring day in Ireland. Dove, on the other hand, has a gentle smell. The aroma hovers like a halo above the bar and, compared to the penetrating zap of Irish Spring, its featherlight whiffs of scent float peacefully through the air. This soap also reminds us of a delicate floral bouquet; washing with it can make you feel as dreamy as Dorothy did in the field of poppies. The suds of Irish Spring feel foamy and frothy like the whitecaps on a wave while the lather of Dove feels full and creamy like the breast of a lovebird. In appearance, Irish Spring is a sea green colour with splashes of white darting across it. The top is lean and curved like the torso of an athlete, the edges are squared, and the words "IRISH SPRING" are branded across its back in bold letters. In contrast, the pure white tone of Dove is not blemished by any other colour. The bar is oval shaped and is curved like the arch of a woman's back. Dove is inscribed on the upper side and the symbol of a dove is etched in for detail.

 

The characteristic of strength in Irish Spring entices men, while the characteristic of gentleness in Dove attracts women. The stereotypical man wants to feel definite, vital and lively. The vigour and manliness that this soap breeds will help him feel this way. This deodorant soap will give him the "kick" he needs to play a good game of rugby, the determination he needs to "sweat" out a business deal, and the confidence he needs to ask her to marry him! In contrast to this, the "traditional" woman wants to feel flowing, feminine, and fertile. Dove gives birth to fantasies filled with fields of flowers, fearless knights, and fat smiling babies. In another way, these two soaps differ because it is more common for a woman to choose Irish Spring than for a man to choose Dove. "Frankly yes, but I like it too" is a statement that makes it easy to imagine a headstrong, active young woman sudsing up with Irish Spring whereas, even in these days of equality, it is difficult to picture a man willingly soaping up with Dove unless his wife does the shopping or he is showering at his mother's house. Lastly, these soaps differ in how they are used. A man would grab Irish Spring and, raising each arm above his head, he would scrub vigorously with a sanding-like motion. Along with this you might hear him sing like a baritone or pour forth a full throated "Laaaaa" like Pavarotti. In contrast, a woman using Dove would cream up the soap; relaxing in the tub she would slowly sooth the emollient over her shoulders. Humming softly to oneself is usually the only effect that Dove has on one's vocal cords.

 

Studying their boxes, their price differences, and their commercials on T.V., one notices how varied Dove and Irish Spring are in their advertising features. Irish Spring is sold in a black box with a splash of colour like a rainbow arched across it. Specifically the rainbow colours are red, orange, yellow, and green; the first three remind us of spring sunshine, and the last one of a freshly mowed lawn. Blue, indigo, and violet, the "winter" colours, are omitted from the box. "Irish Spring" is printed in square letters slanted to the right indicating zesty movement and speed; the letters dominate the middle of the box in their bold green colour. The words "rich lather", "fresh", and "clean" are printed for your information; and "Manly Deodorant Soap" is the description you are given. These individual black boxes are usually sold in groups of two or three with an outer packaging holding them together. The outer packaging is crackly, crinkly plastic that is clear on the sides, and black on the front. In contrast, Dove is sold in white boxes with no lettering on them. Like Irish Spring, two or three boxes are sold together; however, all the writing is on the outer packaging. Rather than plastic, the packaging is made of shiny paper which is half baby blue and half white for the white bar, and half pink and half white for the rose coloured bar. A gold curvy ribbon like the sash of a little girl's dress sweeps across the box dividing the white side and the coloured side. "Dove" is inscribed in graceful, white calligraphy lettering and a deep blue or pink accent behind gives it depth. Suspended above the name is a gold dove enhanced with a silver and white outline. We are told that this soap is one quarter moisturizing cream, and the words "beauty bar" let us know what we are buying. There is a thirty cent price difference between Dove and Irish Spring; Irish Spring has the more "down to earth" price of $1.19, and Dove has the loftier price of $1.49. On T.V., the Irish Spring commercials differ from the Dove commercials in a number of ways. A man is the dominant figure in the Irish Spring commercial, whereas a woman is the main character in Dove; the man is showering in a rustic, wooden outdoor shower, while the woman, who is also outdoors, is bathing in a porcelain bathtub supported on gold lion's feet. Finally the wooden shower is planted in the surroundings of a spring garden with sprouting trees in the background, while the porcelain tub is placed on a cultured lawn and has a white dove hovering above it.