Dr. Mark Jordan ~ ENGL 1301: Composition & Rhetoric
Three-Part Format: Comparison/Contrast
The section that follows is another of six sections dealing with essay structure and various modes. This section deals with the Comparison/Contrast mode. Like the other modes you have studied, it is a modification of the basic essay outline given in the Basic Three-Part Format section; however, it will appear less like the basic three-part format than the others, at least at first glance.
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The Comparison/Contrast Mode
Definition of Comparison/Contrast
To use the comparison-contrast mode, you either compare something to another thing which is similar to it, or you contrast it to a thing different from it; or often, you do some of each.
As with the other modes, the basic reason for doing either of these or both is to learn more about a topic.
Features of the Companson-Contrast Mode
Here are some of the major features of this mode. Read this section carefully and refer back to it frequently while writing your Comparison-Contrast essay.
First of all, this mode is easy to confuse with the Classification mode. Try to tell the difference between the two in these two ways: First, the Classification mode has a single topic, which is then broken into categories. The Comparison-Contrast mode, on the other hand, usually has a two-sided (that is, a double) topic--occasionally it has a triple topic or more, but never only a single topic. Your assignment will use only a two-sided topic, no more.
Second, the Classification mode assumes that there is some similarity among its categories (which students tend to confuse with the two sides of a Comparison-Contrast topic); this assumption can be made because the categories are all parts of the same whole. So what gets discussed in a Classification essay is mostly differences, since that is the unknown variable. On the other hand, a Comparison-Contrast essay may talk about similarities as much as it does differences, because unlike a Classification essay, the similarity can't be assumed.
Let's talk a little more about why this mode is called "comparison-contrast." Strictly speaking, to compare two things is to discuss their similarities; to contrast them is to discuss their differences. A writer might choose to compare similarities in the two sides of the topic; or he might decide to contrast differences. More often, a writer ends up doing some of both. But why wouid a writer choose to do one of those, or the other, or both?
It tends to work this way: There always has to be a reason to pick the two sides of your topic in the first place. I might choose to compare/contrast an orange and a Cadillac, but why? What's the point? One typical strategy or "angle "a writer takes in this mode of writing is to choose the two sides to his topic--let's call these the two subjects---so that both already seem pretty similar, like for instance a Chevy Astro van and a Ford Aerostar van. In that case, what makes sense is to stress the differences.
But another strategy is to pick two subjects which already seem very different, like that orange and that Cadillac. The sensible way to deal with two apparently different subjects is to turn around and stress their similarities.
Yet a third strategy, and probably the most common one of all three, is to do a little of both and deal partly with similarities and partly with differences.
Beyond the general purpose of learning more about a two-sided topic, there are two more specific purposes of this mode: The more typical purpose is to choose which of the two subjects you like better. A good example of a comparison-contrast essay which does this would be one discussing which Presidential candidate to vote for, Clinton or Dole.
However, this mode does not always have to pass such a value judgement. A less frequently seen but perfectly valid purpose of a Comparison-Contrast essay is to simply present unbiased information about the two subjects--either to let the audience make its own value judgment, or even more purely, simply to learn more about both subjects by "bumping them against" one another, in a sense.
Using Common Standards of Comparison
Probably the most crucial feature of a valid Companson/Contrast essay is that it must be an apples-to-apples treatment. What this means is that you can't talk about one list of things in regards to one subject, and then turn right around and talk about a completely different list of things in regards to the second subject. If you do, then in essence what you have is two separate essays, tacked together. This is so because without common yardsticks with which to judge or learn about the two subjects, there is not enough common ground between them.
These "yardsticks" actually have a specific name: They're called standards of comparison. If the subjects of your topic are Clinton and Dole, then a standard of comparison might be to discuss the foreign policy of each candidate. Another standard of comparison (or contrast) might be economic policy. Yet another standard might be crime policy.
Now that's three standards. While three isn't a magic number, it's a good number. You probably don't want more than three, because in writing the essay you're going to have to deal thoroughly with each of the two subjects in regards to each of the three standards of comparison. A little simple math tells you that according to this rule, you've got six things to cover in the main body. That implies that this essay will be longer than a normal example or classification essay--4 to 5 pages, rather than 3.
One more feature of a formal Comparison-Contrast essay is that you should deal with each of these sections separately in the Main Body. That is, don't talk about both subjects within the same paragraph. For example, you should not discuss the foreign policy of both Clinton and Dole within the same body paragraph. Instead, devote one paragraph to Clinton's foreign policy, and then devote an entirely separate paragraph to Dole's foreign policy. There's a reason for this: The temptation is always strong to give the lion's share of the attention to whichever subject you favor, or know more about. If you deal with both subjects within the same body paragraph, and indeed do give much more attention to one than the other, that's harder to spot. It tends to deceive both you as the writer, and the reader as well. And as a writer, you're not out to deceive anyone, or shouldn't be; you're out to inform or persuade, but not deceive or manipulate.
Now, if you have six things to cover in the Main Body (2 subjects times 3 standards of comparison), and if you should deal with all six separately, then that means you should have six sections to the Main Body. For a topic of the size which I typically assign, that usually means one paragraph per section--unless there is some paragraph which gets especially lengthy and needs to be split. Assuming this is not the case, then when you write your essay, your Main Body will contain six paragraphs.
The next-to-last significant feature of a formal Comparison-Contrast essay is that it tends to have a lengthy conclusion; sometimes, in fact, the conclusion might consist of as many as four paragraphs in itself, though that doesn't have to be the case. The reason for this is because you have scrupulously avoided discussing the two subjects within the same paragraph, to ensure fair and equal treatment. But this in turn means that you have had no opportunity to do any real face-to-face, nose-to-nose comparing or contrasting of your two subjects. In fact, a good way to approach the Main Body is to put all your opinions aside and try your honest best to simply describe each subject in regard to each standard of comparison, rather than try to judge them at this point.
The reason to do this is, like keeping the subjects in separate paragraphs, in the interest of fair-handedness. This is very hard for students to do if one of the two subjects is one they dislike. But for that very reason, if you let yourself pass judgment in the Main Body, you will almost certainly "shout down" the disliked subject. Instead of describing that subject fairly, if you begin voicing your own opinion on it in the Main Body, you will almost certainly inadequately represent it, or worse, inaccurately represent it. To put this in other words, the more you dislike a subject, the more careful you are obligated to be in discussing it. You must actually speak for that disliked subject as it would for itself, and very few writers can do that while passing judgment on it. So to be fair, you describe both subjects dispassionately in the Main Body, saving your opinion for later.
But if you don't judge them in the Main Body, then where do you judge them? Well, you do it in the Conclusion, if indeed you judge them at all. If your essay is essentially informative, then you are probably not obligated to a lengthy Conclusion. But if your essay is persuasive--that is, if in fact you are passing judgment as to which subject is better--and if you have striven to fairly describe both subjects in the Main Body, then the place to persuade, to voice your own strong opinions, is in the Conclusion.
If you need this longer type of Conclusion, it usually takes four paragraphs: The first one discusses both subjects in regards to the first standard of comparison. The second paragraph discusses both subjects in regards to the second standard of comparison. The third Conclusion paragraph deals with both subjects in regards to the third standard of comparison. Then you have a very brief fourth paragraph, perhaps consisting of only one sentence, which restates your thesis, or perhaps expands it, if you have saved your opinion for last. (A typical "limited" thesis, if you are saving your opinion for the end, would be to simply declare, in the intro, that you're going to judge between the two subjects. Then you can expand that at the end to actually state your full opinion.)
Sometimes you might find that while you do need to discuss each of the standards of comparison in regards to both subjects at once (like you're doing above), nevertheless you don't need to go so much into detail as to need separate paragraphs. In that case, you can do what is described above, but in only a single paragraph. That paragraph, however, would still likely need to be longer than the typical concluding paragraph in other modes.
That brings us to the last feature. There are two alternative approaches to the Main Body of a Comparison-Contrast essay. The first is called Subject by Subject, and in it you have three paragraphs which deal with all three standards of comparison in regards to the first subject; then you have three more paragraphs which deal with the same three standards, but in regards to the second subject. You say everything you have to offer (in the Main Body) about the first subject before going on to the second subject. Essentially, you are splitting your Main Body into two supersections: one on the first subject, the other on the second subject.
The second approach to the Main Body is called the Standard by Standard approach (also sometimes called the Point by Point approach). In it, you have two paragraphs which deal with both subjects in regards to the first standard of comparison; then you have two more paragraphs which deal with both subjects in regards to the second standard of comparison; then lastly you have two more paragraphs which deal with both subjects yet again, but now in regards to the third standard of comparison. Whereas in the Subject by Subject approach you split your Main Body into two parts, here you are splitting it into three parts. Whereas in the Subject by Subject approach you said everything about the first subject before moving on to the second subject, here you say everything about the first standard of comparison before moving on to the second standard, and handle that second standard completely before moving on to the third.
Very likely these alternative organizations are difficult for you to visualize at this point. Study the outlines which follow, and they should become clear. Keep in mind that the two outlines which follow are alternatives, meaning it's not all one long outline. They are two choices for you; which one is better depends mostly on which one you are most comfortable with.
Two Outline Options for a Comparison/Contrast Essay
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