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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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Basic Format ~ Narration ~ Classification ~ Comparison/Contrast ~ Definition ~ Cause/Effect

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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

Subject by Subject Approach 

I. INTRODUCTION

A. BACKGROUND INFO: Name your two subjects.

B. THESIS: State your purpose (to persuade or inform); if you are merely informing, declaring that intent is your thesis. If you are persuading (passing judgment), then you can have a limited thesis or a full thesis. A limited thesis declares your intent to persuade, but doesn't give away your opinion yet; that is saved for the Conclusion. A full thesis goes ahead and gives your opinion as to which subject is superior. Usually, a limited thesis at this point will help you to remain unbiased in the descriptive Main Body.

C. PREVIEW: List your standards of comparison.

II. MAIN BODY

A. FIRST SUBJECT

1. FIRST STANDARD OF COMPARISON (1st body paragraph)

a. TS (topic sentence)

b. GE (general explanation)

c. SE (specific example)

d. CS (concluding sentence)

2. SECOND STANDARD OF COMPARISON (2nd body paragraph)

a. TS

b. GE

c. SE

d. CS

3. THIRD STANDARD OF COMPARISON (3rd body paragraph)

a. TS

b. GE

c. SE

d. CS

B. SECOND SUBJECT

1. FIRST STANDARD OF COMPARISON (4th body paragraph)

a. TS

b. GE

c. SE

d. CS 

2. SECOND STANDARD OF COMPARISON (5th body paragraph)

a. TS

b. GE

c. SE

d. CS

 3. THIRD STANDARD OF COMPARISON (6th body paragraph)

a. TS

b. GE

c. SE

d. CS 

III. CONCLUSION

A. BOTH SUBJECTS--FIRST STANDARD OF COMPARISON

B. BOTH SUBJECTS--SECOND STANDARD OF COMPARISON

C. BOTH SUBJECTS--THIRD STANDARD OF COMPARISON

D. RESTATEMENT OR EXPANSION OF THESIS

 

Outline of Comparison-Contrast Essay:

Standard by Standard Approach 

I. INTRODUCTION

A. BACKGROUND INFO: Name your two subjects.

B. THESIS: State your purpose (to persuade or inform); if you are merely informing, declaring that intent is your thesis. If you are persuading (passing judgment), then you can have a limited thesis or a full thesis. A limited thesis declares your intent to persuade, but doesn't give away your opinion yet; that is saved for the Conclusion. A full thesis goes ahead and gives your opinion as to which subject is superior. Usually, a limited thesis at this point will help you to remain unbiased in the descriptive Main Body.

C. PREVIEW: List your standards of comparison. 

II. MAIN BODY

A. FIRST STANDARD OF COMPARISON

1. FIRST SUBJECT (1st body paragraph)

a. TS

b. GE

c. SE

d. CS 

2. SECOND SUBJECT (2nd body paragraph)

a. TS

b. GE

c. SE

d. CS

B. SECOND STANDARD OF COMPARISON

1. FIRST SUBJECT (3rd body paragraph)

a. TS

b. GE

c. SE

d. CS 

2. SECOND SUBJECT (4th body paragraph)

a. TS

b. GE

c. SE

d. CS 

C. THIRD STANDARD OF COMPARISON

1. FIRST SUBJECT (5th body paragraph)

a. TS

b. GE

c. SE

d. CS

2. SECOND SUBJECT (6th body paragraph)

a. TS

b. GE

c. SE

d. CS 

III. CONCLUSION

A. BOTH SUBJECTS--FIRST STANDARD OF COMPARISON

B. BOTH SUBJECTS--SECOND STANDARD OF COMPARISON

C. BOTH SUBJECTS--THIRD STANDARD OF COMPARISON

D. RESTATEMENT OR EXPANSION OF THESIS

 

 

A SampleEssay

Immunization Options 

Almost every parent knows how important it is to immunize children against childhood diseases which can cripple or even kill. Something which most parents do not know, however, is that they have an immunization option other than merely choosing one doctor over another. That option is the County Health Department. It can be scary to break away from the family pediatrician, so before my family did so, we compared the two choices according to the three biggest standards we could imagine: cost, convenience, and competence. 

The reason my wife and I considered a change in the first place had to do with cost. When time rolled around for the first battery of vaccinations for Elizabeth, we packed her along to her pediatrician, where the job was done in a suitably competent manner. Our first unpleasant surprise, though, came at the payout window: sixty-five dollars, thank you very much. On submitting this bill to our insurance company for reimbursement, we got another shock. It seems that because immunizations are classified as a so-called "well-baby visit," they are non-reimbursable. Further investigation between shot number one and shot number two only served to inform us that both the doctor's fee and the insurance company's policy concerning it are pretty much industry standards; we couldn't really accuse either our doctor or our insurance company of being a bad guy. 

Sometime between vaccinations number three and four, we made a discovery. If we were to have our daughter immunized by the county rather than a private physician, that sixty-five dollar charge would shrink all the way down to three dollars. Why so little? I'm often pretty cynical about what I actually get in exchange for my tax dollar, but in this case I'm a believer. Immunizations are tremendously important, not only for the individual child and family, but to prevent outbreaks of diseases which could endanger all of us. Since not every family can afford what private clinics charge, the county sees fit to foot most of the bill, to the good of us all. But it's not only the impoverished who may feel the squeeze of high medical bills, and as it turns out, the service is available to everyone, as we found out with a phone call. Of course, the three dollars is still uninsurable, but who cares? 

There's really no comparison between the County Health Department and any private clinic, then, as to cost; the Health Department wins hands down But what about other factors? What about convenience? On our last visit to the pediatrician, we waited no more than several minutes before being led to an exam room. There we waited perhaps another ten minutes--long enough to finish "The Little Engine That Could" and to begin "Three Little Pigs." Then in came the doctor. Inconvenience, in other words, was not a problem. 

How does the Health Department compare? Is it a hassle to go downtown? No, it's not, though even if it were about twenty times the trouble of a visit to the local doc, I figure in that case the scales would just about balance overall. Actually, though,. my daughter and I waited no more than ten minutes, a little less time than it usually takes to see her own doctor.

It's true that there were a few extra hoops to jump through. First, we had to collect her history of past immunizations, which as it turned out was strung across town at two different pediatricians' offices (we're picky customers). That was a little trouble, but it's done now. The only hoop we'll have to jump through again is conforming to the Health Department's schedule, which means that shots are given on Wednesdays from nine to eleven and from one to three (no appointment needed). That might be a problem if more people used the service, but as I said, the wait was barely ten minutes; so as to convenience, the two options rate pretty even. 

Now, though, comes the big worry: competence. No daddy worth his salt would, for even a heartbeat, consider entrusting his little girl to a doctor with dirty needles. My sixty-five dollars buys me absolute--well, relatively absolute--peace of mind regarding my child's treatment. Can a person really get the same competence for three dollars that sixty-five dollars buys? 

If we were comparing two private clinics, the answer would be "Stay away from the three-dollar place," but as you know, the government makes its own rules. In this case they happen to be in our favor. It's true that I was a little nervous about competency, and the fact that I'm used to plush doctors' suites didn't help soothe me; the Health Department, located in the old Post Office building at 2nd Street and Texas, doesn't match up well at all when it comes to fancy upholstery and expensive carpeting. Happily, appearances do deceive. Everyone we dealt with was very polite, and when it came to the really important part--sticking that needle into my little girl's leg--this daddy couldn't have been more satisfied. The county nurse gave Elizabeth her oral polio vaccine first, and while she was still tasting that, she got a quick shot to her upper right arm and another one in her right thigh. The entire procedure took no more than fifteen seconds; Elizabeth never knew what hit her. She had barely decided that this was a suitable occasion for a fit, when we were headed out the door--thanks to the competent organization which had arranged that we pay first. 

Just exactly what are you getting from your pediatrician that you can't get from the county for a fraction of the cost? Your child usually gets, in addition to the shots, a doctor's examination which consists of that tiny bright light applied to the eyes, ears, nose and throat. The child also benefits from the practiced eye of a seasoned professional, which may uncover clues to illnesses just gearing up. In contrast, the county simply gives immunizations; they do it well, but they do no more. The question is whether or not it is worth the risk to forego that professional once-over. Our answer is that when something more serious appears, then we'll go see our doctor; after all, I may be fooling myself, but many times it is the parent who is the most seasoned judge of the small changes in behavior which signal the onset of illness. So for my money (sixty-two dollars' worth), the county is the best choice for all my child's immunizations. And to anyone who has a good use for that sixty-two dollars, I'd recommend the same choice. 

 

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