Friday, August 27, 2010

Compare To vs. Compare With: Can you Liken It?

Sam asked whether there was any difference between compare to and compare with, citing a headine in The Inquistr:
Lady Gaga Compared to Michael Jackson

Thanks, Sam. Compare to and compare with are phrasal verbs, also known as two-word verbs. The second word is usually a preposition, and that preposition can change the meaning of the verb.

Phrasal verbs are also idioms, which are expressions whose meanings are different than the  dictionary definitions of their words. In other words, they are expressions that can't be broken down and dissected. Phrasal verbs and idioms are a veritable nightmare for people learning English as a second language. They can trip up native speakers, too.

The vast majority of people use compare to and compare with interchangeably, yet there is a difference. 

Quick rules:
  • Use compare to when implying or pointing out similarities. In Sam's example, the article describes how Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson are alike, so the headline correctly uses compared to. Lady Gaga Compared to Michael Jackson. Also: He is always comparing his math teacher to a drill sergeant. The current economy is sometimes compared to a sleeping bear.
  • Use compare with when your aim is to illustrate differences. Compared with his old bricklaying job, Jim's new bartending gig is a piece of cake. This year's algebra class is very hard compared with last year's math class.

Try this: 
  • If you can substitute 'liken to,' then use 'compare to.' He is always likening his math teacher to a drill sergeant. The current economy is sometimes likened to a sleeping bear. On the other hand, consider This year's algebra class is very hard when likened to last year's math class. You wouldn't use the word 'liken' here because you are pointing out a difference between the classes.

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