Science

Compared to What?

So, these two economists are sitting in a bar. The first asks the second “How’s your wife?” The second replies “Compared to what?”

I think of this joke often when I encounter the word “compared” in articles I edit.

Some writers use the preposition “to,” and some use “with” after the word “compared.” Which is correct? The answer is “both.” However, experts in English usage tend to agree that you should prefer “to” in some situations and “with” in others.

According to Strunk and White (The Elements of Style)

To compare to is to point out or imply resemblances between objects regarded as essentially of a different order;

to compare with is mainly to point out differences between objects regarded as essentially of the same order.

Thus, life has been compared to a pilgrimage, to a drama, to a battle; Congress may be compared with the British Parliament. Paris has been compared to ancient Athens; it may be compared with modern London.

According to the Penguin Writer’s Manual,

Both prepositions, to and with, can be used following compare. Neither is more correct than the other, but a slight distinction can be made in meaning.

To has traditionally been preferred when the similarity between two things is the point of the comparison and compare means ‘liken’: I hesitate to compare my own works to those of someone like Dickens.

With, on the other hand, suggests that the differences between two things are as important as, if not more important than, the similarities: We compared the facilities available to most city-dwellers with those available to people living in the countryto compare like with like.

When compare is used intransitively it should be followed by with: Our output simply cannot compare with theirs.

According to the AP Stylebook,

Both prepositions, to and with, can be used following compare. Neither is more correct than the other, but a slight distinction can be made in meaning.

To has traditionally been preferred when the similarity between two things is the point of the comparison and compare means ‘liken’: I hesitate to compare my own works to those of someone like Dickens.

With, on the other hand, suggests that the differences between two things are as important as, if not more important than, the similarities: We compared the facilities available to most city-dwellers with those available to people living in the countryto compare like with like.

When compare is used intransitively it should be followed by with: Our output simply cannot compare with theirs.

The Grammarist observes that the preferred preposition has changed over time. One hundred years ago, “with” was preferred. Today, “to” is preferred. This is what happens with language: it evolves. There are no absolutes; there are only observations of how people use language.

For writers of scientific articles, the nuances of meaning outlined above do not matter. You can use either “to” or “with” after forms of the verb “to compare.” When in doubt, remember the two economists sitting in a bar.

Do you need help getting your article published? I can help!

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