Grammar Compare To vs. Compare With |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Compare To vs. Compare With

Is there a difference between comparing A to B and comparing A with B?

The answer is yes, and it is a difference worth maintaining; but these days, compare to and compare with are in danger of becoming interchangeable. This looks like yet another fight that the grammar patrol is about to lose.

When we compare something to something else, we are placing two things—sometimes very different things—in the same category and commenting on connections we perceive. We are expressing an opinion or making an observation. Others might not have noticed these similarities; still others might disagree with them. Some examples: I’d compare the view from your living room to a painting by Bierstadt. Ruben compared Giorgio’s spaghetti to dog food. Note that these are subjective statements—they are not verifiable.

When we compare something with something else, we are not expressing opinions or making personal statements. We are placing two things side by side and noting empirical similarities and differences. Our purpose is to be fair and impartial. The accuracy or inaccuracy of our findings can be verified. For instance, if we flout the old cliché and compare apples with oranges, we find that neither fruit contains fat, cholesterol, or sodium; that oranges contain more than twice as much potassium as apples; that a cup of oranges contains twenty more calories than a cup of apples.

The act of comparing to—claiming that two distinct entities share a noteworthy similarity—is something children do all the time. When a child says, “Mommy, that owl looks like Uncle Al!” she is comparing her uncle’s face to a bird’s. That is not exactly in-depth analysis. Comparing with tends to be a more mature, responsible, and demanding act than comparing to. Comparing with requires objectivity—and often necessitates research.

In the writer’s guide Simple and Direct, Jacques Barzun issues this caveat: “Any writer can compare himself with Shakespeare and discover how far he falls short; if he compares himself to Shakespeare (i.e., puts himself on the same level), then he had better think again.”

 

Pop Quiz

Choose the better options. Answers are below.

1.
A) Corey compared Eva’s running style with a gazelle’s.
B) Corey compared Eva’s running style to a gazelle’s.

2.
A) The police compared the e in Whitten’s signature with the e in the forged name on the contract.
B) The police compared the e in Whitten’s signature to the e in the forged name on the contract.

3.
A) Compared with the amount of money the administration has proposed for defense, the cost of this program will be small.
B) Compared to the amount of money the administration has proposed for defense, the cost of this program will be small.

4.
A) She compared my singing with the bleating of a calf in a hail storm.
B) She compared my singing to the bleating of a calf in a hail storm.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1.
B) Corey compared Eva’s running style to a gazelle’s.

2.
A) The police compared the e in Whitten’s signature with the e in the forged name on the contract.

3.
A) Compared with the amount of money the administration has proposed for defense, the cost of this program will be small.

4.
B) She compared my singing to the bleating of a calf in a hail storm.

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6 responses to “Compare To vs. Compare With

  1. Kris says:

    Thank you so much! The pop quiz is very helpful. I can compare it to a postcode in an address.

  2. Paul Plummer says:

    Was Shakespeare “correct” to say: shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”? If he’d stopped there, he might have been ok but then he goes on to draw out the differences. What’s the answer? Was he right or did he skip grammar classes?

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      The Bard’s eloquent English was correct. The phrase “compare to” typically represents subjectivity in relating different objects as we perceive them. As the post states, we are expressing an opinion or making an observation. While the speaker in Sonnet 18 might “compare thee to a summer’s day,” another speaker might “compare thee to a well-lit fountain at night.”

  3. Ayilamo Cornelius says:

    Are the meanings of compare to or compare with explainable based on rules of grammar?

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      The reasoning behind “compare to” and “compare with” in American English is more a matter of idiom than it is of grammar. For this reason, no particular rules of grammar apply in distinguishing them. Understanding their usage therefore calls for familiarity with their definitions as described in the article.

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