Q&A: Comparing notes

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're comparing comparisons…

Q: It's time to check out the mail bag.
A: We have a mail bag?
Q: Well it's an email inbox, but yes, it can be compared to a mail bag. And one email in particular stands out when compared with the other emails.
A: Do tell.
Q: It's from Geoff, who has trouble choosing between “compared to” and “compared with”.
A: Hi Geoff, great question. And yes, it's fine line with these two. However, when comparing one with the other, there is a subtle difference. As that sentence just demonstrated.
Q: Wait, what? I must have missed that.
A: We chose to say “when comparing one WITH the other” in the last sentence as these are two related things. We want to highlight the difference between them.
Q: Okay.
A: And that's where we have our major distinction. Using “compared to” typically takes two things that aren't really related and seeks to bring them together.
Q: Example.
A: “Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?”
Q: No, just the example is fine.
A: That WAS the example. It's Shakespeare's Sonnet 18.
Q: Oh, don't remember seeing that as a play. Is Kenneth Branagh in it?
A: No, it has just 14 lines. Shakespeare compares his love to the warmth and temperament of a summer's day.
Q: Fair enough.
A: To “compare to” is to imply resemblances between objects generally regarded as a different order (i.e. love and a summer's day). Meanwhile, to “compare with” points out differences between objects that are essentially the same order (e.g. Sydney and Melbourne).
Q: Pffft. Melbourne is nothing like Sydney. It has far more laneways filled with graffiti and people wearing satchels while riding rusty bicycles.
A: Sure, that may be so, but we would still say “Melbourne has colder winter temperatures when compared WITH Sydney”.
Q: You had to bring up the weather didn't you.
A: However, you might also say that “An AFL game can be compared to a gladiator battle”.
Q: Okay, so can we just have a quick recap?
A: Sure thing. “Compares to” likens one unrelated thing to the other – attempting to show how similar they are. But “Compares with” is more of a side-by-side comparison between related things – pointing out differences.
Q: So, if I were at the zoo, and saw an elephant giving another elephant a piggyback ride…
A: You may have stumbled upon some kind of breeding program… but yes, do go on.
Q: I would say that the elephant's strength could be compared to that of a truck.
A: Yes. Two unrelated things being likened to each other.
Q: But that its ears could be compared with the other elephant's ears.
A: Perfect – because we are doing a direct side by side comparison of related things to see how they differ.
Q: I like the zoo.
A: Good for you. As the singer Sinead O'Connor once sang, nothing compares to zoo.
Q: So finally, can you address the (piggybacking) elephant in the room: people who say “compares to” and “compares with” are interchangeable?
A: Well, they can be. (After all, we're talking about the word “compare” – which by definition oscillates between one side and the other!) In fact, the latest fashion is to use “compares to” for everything. But there is a subtle distinction, we've described it today, and we suggest using it.
Q: Thanks!

Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you'd like our Q&A to explore this year? Email it to us today!

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