Comparison and Contrast Focusing

Because they involve at least two subjects and offer several possibilities of emphasis, comparison and contrast pose problems of focus. For one thing, you must decide whether to deal only with similarities or only with dissimilarities, or to cover both. The topic sentence must make your intention clear to readers:

The difference between a sign and a symbol is, in brief. . . .

Susanne K. Langer

It is a temptation to make a comparison between the nineteen twenties and the nineteen sixties, but the similarities are fewer than the differences. Russell Lynes

Bears and dogs are alike in one intriguing way. Evelyn Jones

A second decision of focusing concerns the subjects. Will you concentrate on one subject or treat both equally? If you are comparing (or contrasting), say, New York and Los Angeles, you have three possibilities of focus: New York, Los Angeles, or both. Make clear which it will be. But don't be heavy-handed; a topic sentence like "I shall focus here upon New York" is mechanical and obvious. Instead, construct the topic sentence so that the key idea functions as the subject word and thus naturally indicates your focus. If your chief concern is, say, New York:

In many ways New York is like Los Angeles.

If it is both places:

In many ways New York and Los Angeles are alike.

In the following paragraph notice how the historian J. G. Randall keeps his focus constantly before us. (He is comparing the failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War and the refusal of the U.S. Senate to accept President Wilson's League of Nations policy after World War I. The italics have been added.)

In the case of both Lincoln and Wilson the soldiers did their part and so did the Executive, but in each case partisanship and narrow-mindedness wrecked the program. Under Lincoln and Johnson, as under Wilson, there was failure of high-minded unity behind the plan of peace that bore promise of success. In each case, instead of needful co-operation, there was stupid deadlock between President and Congress. There was in each case a fateful congressional election whose effect was felt far down in later years: 1918 may be matched against the "critical year" In each case the Presi dent's plan failed in the sense that it failed to be adopted; the opposite plan in each case failed miserably by being adopted.

Organizing a Comparison or Contrast

When you compare or contrast any two subjects, which we can call A and B, you do so with regard to specific points, which we'll call 1, 2, 3. Now you may proceed in two ways, organizing around A and B or around 1, 2, 3. Thus in contrasting New York and Los Angeles you might devote the first half of the paragraph (or an entire paragraph) to New York and the second half (or a new paragraph) to Los Angeles. In each section you would cover the same particular points and in the same climate, cultural facilities, and nightlife. Conversely, you might prefer to make climate, cultural facilities, and nightlife the primary centers of your organization, devoting a paragraph or portion of a paragraph to each and discussing how the two cities differ.

Neither way of proceeding is necessarily better. Organizing around A and B stresses each subject in its totality. Organizing around 1, 2, and 3 emphasizes particular likenesses or differences. It all depends on what you want to do. In the following case the writer elected to organize around A and Western civilization and Eastern:

Americans and Western Europeans, in their sensitivity to lingering problems around them, tend to make science and progress their scapegoats. There is a belief that progress has precipitated widespread unhappiness, anxieties and other social and emotional problems. Science is viewed as a cold mechanical discipline having nothing to do with human warmth and the human spirit.

But to many of us from the nonscientific East, science does not have such repugnant associations. We are not afraid of it, nor are we disappointed by it. We know all too painfully that our social and emotional problems festered long before the age of technology. To us, science is warm and reassuring. It promises hope. It is helping us at long gain some control over our persecutory environments, alleviating age-old only physical but also, and especially, problems of the spirit. F. M. Esfendiaiy

In the next example, on the other hand, a historian contrasting Catholics and Protestants in the sixteenth century organizes not around the broad categories of Roman and Reformer, but rather around the differences that set them at war:

The Catholic believed in the authority of the Church; the Reformer, in the authority of reason. Where the Church had spoken, the Catholic obeyed. His duty was to accept without question the laws which councils had decreed, which popes and bishops administered, and so far as in him lay to enforce in others the same submission to an outward rule which he regarded as divine. All shades of Protestants on the other hand agreed that authority might err; that Christ had left no visible representative, whom individually they were bound to obey; that religion was the operation of the Spirit on the mind and conscience; that the Bible was God's word, which each Christian was to read, and which with God's help and his natural intelligence he could not fail to understand. The Catholic left his Bible to the learned. The Protestant translated the Bible, and brought it to the door of every Christian family. The Catholic prayed in Latin, and whether he understood his words or repeated them as a form the effect was the same; for it was magical. The Protestant prayed with his mind as an act of faith in a language intelligible to him, or he could not pray at all. The Catholic bowed in awe before his wonder-working image, adored his relics, and gave his life into the guidance of his spiritual director. The Protestant tore open the machinery of the miracles, flung the bones and ragged garments into the fire, and treated priests as men like himself. The Catholic was intolerant upon principle; persecution was the corollary of his creed. The intolerance of the Protestant was in spite of his creed. In denying the right of the Church to define his own belief, he had forfeited the privilege of punishing the errors of those who chose to differ from him. James Anthony Froude

Building the Comparison or Contrast

Closely related to the question of organization is a final problem: in what compositional units will the comparison be built—that is, out of paragraphs, portions of paragraphs, sentences, halves of sentences? Probably the simplest plan is to spend a paragraph, or several sentences within a paragraph, on one of the two subjects and a unit of roughly equal length on the other. This is what F. M. Esfandiary does in discussing the differences between Eastern and Western attitudes toward science.

But you may also construct a comparison or contrast in pairs of sentences:

The original Protestants had brought new passion into the ideal of the state as a religious society and they had set about to discipline this society more strictly than ever upon the pattern of the Bible. The later Protestants reversed a fundamental purpose and became the allies of individualism and the secular state.

Herbert Butterfield

Or both parts of the comparison may be held within a single sentence, the total effect being built up from a series of such sentences:

At first glance the traditions of journalism and scholarship seem completely unlike: journalism so bustling, feverish, content with daily oblivion; the academic world so sheltered, deliberate, and hopeful of enduring products. It is true that both are concerned with ascertainment and diffusion of truth. In journalism, however, the emphasis falls on a rapid diffusion of fact and idea; in academic work it falls on a prolonged, laborious

Allen Nevins

How you build a comparison or contrast is related, of course, to how you organize it. Using two paragraphs (or two portions of a single paragraph) is better when you are organizing around A and is, treating each subject in its entirety. Proceeding by balanced sentences or halves of sentences is better if you wish to focus on specific points of similarity or difference.

Writing a comparison or contrast requires that you think carefully about what you want to accomplish and how you can best focus, organize, and work up the material. The problem is further complicated by the fact that none of the choices we have discussed is absolute. A paragraph is not restricted to comparing or contrasting: it can do both. It does not have to maintain only one focus: a skillful writer can shift. And extended comparisons and contrasts can, and do, vary their methods of building.

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