32 Module 7: Compare and Contrast- How We Discuss Multiple Subjects at Once

Module Introduction

As we start our final module, we should take stock of what we’ve accomplished so far in this course. After coming to terms with our strange relation to the symbiotic technology of language, we set out to learn how to interact with that technology more deliberately. Starting with descriptive writing (translating the five senses into words), we have progressed through narrative writing, example writing, and argumentative writing, focusing on how to organize our ideas effectively and how to support those ideas with compelling details. Now we turn to one more kind of discourse, comparison/contrast writing. Though this kind of writing is quite similar to example writing, comparison/contrast writing differs in one very important way: it requires a writer to discuss two subjects together rather than focusing on just one. Luckily, the thought process behind comparison/contrast writing is an extremely familiar one for almost everybody.

We use comparisons to make important decisions every day. Whether we are choosing a career to work toward, a school to attend, a product to buy, or a political figure to elect, we narrow our choices and examine them side-by-side. Indeed, making important decisions involves both comparing and contrasting at least two choices that are in the same category.Comparing means examining how things are similar, while contrasting means looking at the ways things differ. For instance, if you wanted to choose which of two schools to attend, you would need to compare the similarities and contrast the differences of the two educational institutions. When making such a decision, you are evaluating based on comparisonand contrast .

It’s safe to say that every one of us has had to compare or contrast two subjects or topics to gain insights about them, and we are compelled to do so on a regular basis. For example, we often compare or contrast two personal experiences, two bosses, two teachers, or two friends in order to make better sense of our world and even to justify our belief systems.

In college, students often contrast or compare two books, two stories or poems, two songs, or two paintings. When students engage in such comparative thinking, they are gaining insights about these topics. It is important, however, to realize that when writing a simple comparison/contrast paper, students either compare or contrast topics, typically not both. In other words, though you will often consider both the similarities and differences among subjects, when you write your essay for this module, you will discuss either the subjects’ similarities (thereby writing a comparison paper) or their differences (thus writing a contrast paper). In this module, students will learn how to construct a comparison or contrast essay in order to evaluate, gain insight, or to make a choice. (1)


Upon completion of this module, the student will be able to:

  • Use a points-of-reference chart to compare or contrast topics
  • Identify the methods of comparing and contrasting used by the authors
  • Use appropriate transitional words for comparing and contrasting essays and topics
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of comparison and contrast methods, given model essays
  • Compose a compare or contrast essay by using the steps of the writing process (1)


  • Online Learning Units

Lecture Content

ENC1101 Learning Unit 7

The Basics of Comparison and Contrast

Whether you are writing an essay for a college course or making a life decision, the skill of comparing and contrasting is essential. At the heart of this skill is the ability to logically consider two subjects at once in order to make an interesting claim about their relationship or choose one over the other. Two tools can help you develop a comparison/contrast analysis: a points-of-reference chart and transition words. (1)

Points-of-Reference Chart

One method used to compare and contrast choices is a points-of-reference chart , a simple example of which is shown in Table 1. The points-of-reference are those criteria most crucial in making a decision.

As we have seen in our other modules, planning is always key to developing a logical claim or argument, and the same is true for making a careful decision. For instance, imagine a situation in which you have to choose which college to attend. How does one make such a momentous (and expensive) decision? Comparing or contrasting the colleges is essential to thinking this choice through, but in order to do so effectively, you will have to imagine what criteria to consider to lead you to the best choice.

For many college students, three factors are primary when it comes to selecting a school: its location, its educational offerings, and its overall cost.

The section below presents these three criteria as the points-of-reference listed in the middle column of the chart. We call them points-of-reference because we will refer to each factor when we think about each one of the schools we have to consider, and they indicate the three points we think are most important when considering our decision. On either side of these points you will find columns listing our thoughts regarding going to a community college (the left-hand column) vs. going to a state university (the right-hand column). The table thus provides an easy way to group important factors and to consider how each subject relates to the other; by reading across the chart, for instance, one can easily see that how the local community college’s location stacks up against that of the state university. (1)

Points-of-Reference Example Comparing Similarities and Differences of Two Colleges through the se of Three Criteria: Location, Program of Study, and Cost.

Community College

Points of Reference

  • Close to home, 10 minute commute
  • Prolongs dependence on family if living at home is an option
  • Proximity means no major life changes and thus discourages adventuring
Programs of Study
  • Offers Associates of Arts degree in general biology
  • Offers general education courses needed to transfer junior year to 4-year university for Bachelor of Science (BS), if desired
  • Faculty are well-credentialed and have excellent reputation for being student-centered
  • Lowest, affordable tuition Proximity to home eliminates food and housing expenses
  • Commute will incur gas and parking costs

State University

Points of Reference

  • Several hours from home, distance too far to commute
  • Is far enough away that living on one’s own will be a challenge
  • Distance from home means school becomes an opportunity for exploring a new place
Programs of Study
  • Offers Bachelor of Science degree in marine biology—the program of most interest
  • Attendance as a freshman and sophomore means getting to know the faculty with whom one will work during rigorous upper level courses
  • Faculty are well-published in field and have international reputations
  • Tuition is low, but higher than local community college
  • Distance from home will incur food and housing costs
  • Relocation and transfer costs

Developing a points-of-reference chart like this one is a great way to prewrite for a comparison/contrast essay, and it is especially useful once you’ve either used questioning or listing to come up with a bunch of ideas related to your topic (in the case we’ve been considering, the topic was “which college should I attend?”). The points-of-reference chart will help you establish the main categories you will use to make your decision (the chart’s “points-of-reference”), and then you can drop the ideas you’ve come up with to either side of those main points. As you will soon see, this kind of planning is especially useful when you decide to organize your essay using the point-by-point method, which we will discuss below. (1)

Transitional Words

The use of transitional words can be combined with the points-of-reference chart when you transform the information on the chart into useful evidence for a paper. That is, transitional words can be used to write sentences comparing or contrasting the reference points. The following is an example of this type of sentence: The community college has the lowest tuition (cost), but it doesn’t offer marine biology as a degree (program of study). In this example, but is the transitional word used to contrast two points-of-reference— costand program of study (1)

In Table 2, each transitional word is listed with its purpose–to compare or contrast.

Table: Transitional Words Used to Compare or Contrast

Although Contrast
However Contrast
But Contrast
Even Compare

Using transitions in this way will help your reader follow your train of thought, for it will help you balance the two subjects in an easily understandable way. Keep these important words in mind as we discuss two ways you can organize your comparison/contrast essay: the point-by-point method or the block method (1)

Point-by-Point Method

This organizational strategy is much like that of a traditional example essay; each of your essay’s body “sections” will focus on one of the points-of-reference and will explain it in relation to each subject. Thus, in the example above, one body section would cover location, one would cover program of study, and one would cover cost. In each of these sections you would discuss both subjects together; like a typical example essay, each part of the essay’s body would thus make a specific point, and the specific details would be the information about each subject (in this example, the community college and the state university) relevant to that point. Take a look at the following outline as a guide for this method of organization.

Thesis: Although both schools offer exceptional educational opportunity, the state university’s program of study and prospects for personal growth outweigh the lower price and convenience of the local community college.

  1. Cost
    1. Community College
      1. Low tuition
      2. Proximity to home cuts expenses
      3. Commute means gas and parking costs
    2. State University
      1. Reasonable tuition but more expensive than comm. college
      2. Housing cost will be substantial, even if dorm available
      3. Relocation and transfer costs will be expensive
  2. Location
    1. Community College
      1. Close to home
      2. Proximity encourages prolonged dependence on family
      3. Few chances for adventure/ personal growth outside school
    2. State University
      1. Distance too far to commute
      2. Distance from home will require increase in personal growth/responsibility
  3. Program of Study
    1. Community College
      1. Offers Associate of Arts degree in general biology
      2. Offers general education courses needed to 4-year university for Bachelor of Science (BS)
      3. Faculty are well-credentialed and have excellent reputation for being student-centered
    2. State University
      1. Offers Bachelor of Science degree in marine biology (program of most interest to applicant)
      2. Attendance as a freshman and sophomore means getting to know the faculty with whom one will work during rigorous upper level courses
      3. Faculty are well-published in field and have international reputations

Note that the writer has reorganized the points of reference here and moves from what he or she considers the least important point (cost) to the most important (program of study). If a student were more concerned about price, the cost would have come last and the community college would have been the overall choice indicated in the thesis. Thus, the point-by-point method is typically combined with emphatic order (least to most important) so that the essay builds its case and ends with a bang. (1)

Block Method

Another way to organize a comparison/contrast paper is to use the block method to write about the two subjects in separate parts of the paper. In this type of essay, you discuss everything about your first subject in the first section of your essay, and then you discuss the second topic in the second “section,” making sure to refer back to the information you’ve mentioned about the first topic in order to make your points. Remember, the overall goal is to show how the two topics relate.

Here’s a block method outline for a paper on the two schools we’ve been discussing:

Thesis: Although both schools offer exceptional educational opportunity, the state university’s program of study and prospects for personal growth outweigh the lower price and convenience of the local community college.

  1. Community College
    1. Cost
      1. Low tuition
      2. Proximity to home cuts expenses
      3. Commute means gas and parking costs
    2. Location
      1. Close to home
      2. Proximity encourages prolonged dependence on family
      3. Few chances for adventure/ personal growth outside school
    3. Program of Study
      1. Offers Associate of Arts degree in general biology
      2. Offers general education courses needed to 4-year university for Bachelor of Science (BS)
      3. Faculty are well-credentialed and have excellent reputation for being student-centered
  2. State University
    1. Cost
      1. Reasonable tuition but more expensive than comm. college
      2. Housing cost will be substantial, even if dorm available
      3. Relocation and transfer costs will be expensive

Note that all of the points are presented in the same order for each subject (cost is first, followed by location and program of study). This assures an orderly progression of ideas so that it’s easy for the reader to follow along. When actually drafting a block method paper, the writer must use transitions when he or she gets to the second subject. This is especially important when the paper shifts to the second subject. In the above example, for instance, you might start off talking about the state university with the transition “On the other hand, the state university is a costly option that requires fundamental life changes” in order to help the reader follow along with your shift.

When writing a contrast paper like this one, that is, choosing one subject as the best option, it is usually a good idea to end with the subject of one’s choosing; that way you are again building up to your choice, and as you discuss the second subject you can relate back to what you explained in the first part of the paper (the info you gave about the first subject) in order to emphasize the reasons the second choice wins out. (1)

ENC1101 Learning Unit 7.2

Readings: Compare and Contrast- How We Discuss Multiple Subjects at Once


In this module we discussed how to write about two subjects together, either by showing how they are similar (comparison writing) or how they are different (contrast writing). Whether you are comparing or contrasting subjects, you will use either the point-by-point method or the block method to organize your ideas. In this section we will examine two essays written by the same author that contrast the same two subjects (self-motivated and unmotivated students) but that use different methods to do so. The first uses the point-by-point method, while the second uses the block method. (1)


Point-by-Point Method

Select and read this essay, “Negative or Positive Learning Experience: It’s Up to You” by M. K. Connor, written using point-by-point method.

Block Method

Select and read this essay, “Negative or Positive Learning Experience: It’s Up to You” by M. K. Connor, written using block method.

What to Look for: Point-by-Point Essay

While reading this essay, you should first be able to locate the thesis statement that appears (as is so often the case) at the end of the introduction (the first paragraph).

Thesis Statement

Indeed, while unmotivated students often contribute to their negative educational experiences by failing to engage with their classes and instructors and making excuses to avoid work, self-motivated students will seek to make the best of their experiences and will learn in spite of the obstacles they may face.

This thesis makes its central point clear by naming the two subjects being contrasted: unmotivated students and self-motivated students. It also indicates the purpose behind the writing; it is going to show how someone can “make the best” of an educational experience by adopting the tactics of the self-motivated students.

The rest of the essay then explains the differences between unmotivated and self-motivated students, proceeding on point-by-point basis. In other words, each body paragraph makes a specific point and relates it to both kinds of students. Here is how that logic proceeds.

Body Paragraph #1

Main point – unmotivated and self-motivated students approach mandatory courses differently

Body Paragraph #2

Main point – unmotivated and self-motivated students approach course types/formats differently

Body Paragraph #3

Main point – unmotivated and self-motivated students approach problematic instructors differently

In order to stay in line with the essay’s thesis, each one of these paragraphs shows not only how each type of student’s approach is different but also how self-motivated student approaches positively affect learning.

Finally, note that the final paragraph, the essay’s conclusion, draws everything together without simply repeating points, ultimately recalling the essay’s purpose (to encourage readers to be self-motivated). It reinforces the fact that the essay as a whole is much more than just a list of points about two subjects; it makes an overall suggestion about life that could have a positive impact on its audience. (1)

What to Look for: Block-style Essay

The second essay is very similar to the first one and makes the exact same point. Note that the introductions to both essays are exactly the same, as are their thesis statements. What differentiates this essay from the previous one is its organizational method. Here, the author chooses to discuss everything about unmotivated students in the first part of the body, and then she discusses everything about self-motivated students in the second part, sometimes referring back to things she has said about the unmotivated students to clarify her purpose and to unify her ideas.

Note the major transition she uses to begin the second half of the body: on the other hand . This signals to the reader that she has shifted from one subject to the other. Moreover, pay attention to the way she presents points in the same order when she discusses both subjects separately. When she explains how unmotivated students tend to behave in the first half of the essay, she discusses their attitudes about mandatory courses, course formats, and instructors, and when she discusses how self-motivated students behave, she discusses their attitudes about the same three topics in the same sequence. This helps everything to hold together logically and makes the essay easy to read. (1)

ENC1101 Learning Unit 7.3

Active and Passive Voice: Voice

Voice is used to describe more than one thing when it comes to writing. It can refer to the general “feel” of a piece of writing, or it can be used in a more technical sense. In this module, we will focus on the technical side as we discuss active and passive voice.

You’ve probably heard of the passive voice—perhaps in a comment from an English teacher or in the grammar checker of a word processor. In both of these instances, you were (likely) guided away from the passive voice. Why is this the case? Let’s investigate. (36)

Active and Passive Voice

There are two main “voices” in English writing: the active voice and the passive voice. You’ve probably heard a lot about them—and you’ve probably been warned not to use the passive voice. But what exactly distinguishes the active voice from the passive voice?

In the simplest terms, an active voice sentence is written in the form of “A does B.” (For example, “Carmen sings the song.”) A passive voice sentence is written in the form of “B is done by A.” (For example, “The song is sung by Carmen.”) Both constructions are grammatically sound and correct. Let’s look at a couple more examples of the passive voice:

  • I’ve been hit! ( or , I have been hit!)
  • Jasper was thrown from the car when it was struck from behind.

You may have noticed something unique about the previous two sentences: the subject of the sentence is not the person (or thing) performing the action. The passive voice “hides” who does the action. Despite these sentences being completely grammatically sound, we don’t know who hit “me” or what struck the car.

The passive is created using a form of the verb to be and the past participle. When identifying passive sentences, remember that forms of the verb to be (like am is are was , andwere ) have other uses than just creating the passive voice. “She was falling” and “His keys were rusty” are not passive sentences. In the first, to be is a continuous past verb, and in the second to be is a past tense linking verb. There are two key features that will help you identify a passive sentence:

  1. Something is happening (the sentence has a verb that is not a linking verb).
  2. The subject of the sentence is not doing that thing. (37)(38)


As you read the two sentences below, think about how the different voice may affect the meaning or implications of each one:

  • Passive voice: The rate of evaporation is controlled by the size of an opening.
  • Active voice: The size of an opening controls the rate of evaporation.

The passive voice slightly emphasizes “the rate of evaporation” in the first sentence, while the active voice emphasizes “the size of an opening” in the second sentence. Both of these sentences are relatively clear and easy to understand. However, some passive constructions can produce grammatically tangled sentences such as this:

Groundwater flow is influenced by zones of fracture concentration, as can be recognized by the two model simulations (see Figures 1 and 2), by which one can see . . .

The sentence is becoming a burden for the reader, and probably for the writer, too. As often happens, the passive voice here has smothered potential verbs and kicked off a runaway train of prepositions. But the reader’s task gets much easier in the revised version below:

Two model simulations (Figures 1 and 2) illustrate how zones of fracture concentration influence groundwater flow. These simulations show . . .

To revise the above, all we did was look for the two buried things (simulations and zones) in the original version that could actually do something, and we made the sentence clearly about these two nouns by placing them in front of active verbs. This is the general principle to follow as you compose in the active voice: place concrete nouns that can perform work in front of active verbs. (37)(38)

Revising passive voice sentences

Now you’ve seen how sometimes the passive voice can cover up its source, that is, who is doing the acting. Here’s another example:

  • Passive: The papers will be graded according to the criteria stated in the syllabus.
    • Graded by whom?
  • Active: The teacher will grade the papers according to the criteria stated in the syllabus. (37)(39)

Using the Passive Voice

There are several different situations where the passive voice is more useful than the active voice:

When you don’t know who did the action: The paper had been moved.

  • The active voice would be something like this: “Someone had moved the paper.” While this sentence is technically fine, the passive voice sentence has a subtler element of mystery, which can be especially helpful in creating a mood in fiction.

When you want to hide who did the action: The window had been broken.

  • The sentence is either hiding who broke the window, or indicates that the writer does not know who broke it. Again, the sentence can be reformed to say “Someone had broken the window,” but using the word someone clearly indicates that someone (though we may not know who) is at fault. Using the passive puts the focus on the window rather than on the person who broke it, as he or she is completely left out of the sentence.

When you want to emphasize the person or thing the action was done to: Caroline was hurt when Kent broke up with her.

  • We automatically focus on the subject of the sentence. If the sentence were to say “Kent hurt Caroline when he broke up with her,” then our focus would be drawn to Kent rather than Caroline.

When the active version of a sentence would feature a subject that can’t actually do anything: Caroline was hurt when she fell into the trees.

  • While active voice version of the sentence would say “The trees hurt Caroline,” they didn’t actually do anything. Thus, it makes more sense to have Caroline as the subject rather than saying “The trees hurt Caroline when she fell into them.” (40)(41)

Writing Assignment: Writing a Comparison or Contrast Essay

The final essay assignment requires you to make a choice: do you want to compare two subjects (show how they are similar) or contrast them (show how they are different)?

As you read in the module, it is important to remember that for a basic comparison/contrast assignment, although you will consider both the similarities and differences among subjects as you gather your ideas, your essay itself will discuss either the subjects’ similarities or their differences, not both. You can write about any two subjects you want; just make sure you make an overall point about them. Your essay should ultimately evaluate how the subjects are alike or different, offering some kind of surprising insight about them or helping readers make a choice between the two. Whatever the case, just make sure that your essay makes an intriguing point ; don’t just compare two things that are obviously similar or contrast two items that are obviously completely different.

Some possible subjects to consider are:

  • two kinds of art or artists
  • two products or services
  • two movies you’ve seen
  • two traveling experiences you’ve had
  • a book and its cinematic adaptation
  • an original song and a “cover” version of it
  • two restaurants
  • two fictional characters or real-life celebrities
  • two sports teams or athletes


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

English Composition I Copyright © by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book