Compared “to” or Compared “with”?

By Maeve Maddox

A reader writing a report emailed me to ask:

Should I write “compared to previous years” or “compared with previous years” or doesn’t it matter?

Here is what three popular handbooks have to say on the matter.

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.

AP Stylebook

Use compared to when the intent is to assert, without the need for elaboration, that two or more items are similar: She compared her work for women’s rights to Susan B Anthony’s campaign for women’s suffrage.

Use compared with when juxtaposing two or more items to illustrate similarities and/or differences: His time was 2:11:10 compared with 2:14 for his closest competitor.

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 country; to compare like with like.

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

Bottomline: If the differences are important, say compared with.

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20 Responses to “Compared “to” or Compared “with”?”

  • Jerry Litwicki

    I am so glad I found you through tw. One benefit of me getting on to begin with is coming across sites such as this. I hadn’t really anticipated some of the resources being a result.
    Jerry L.

    P.S. I know I probably really need the help. CALTM (chuckle a little to myself)

  • Deborah H

    What an excellent tip. Thank you.

  • Jay

    So… “Compare with” = contrast; What are the circumstances by which one would use contrast as the verb instead?

  • Eric T. MacKnight

    Perhaps in a future entry you can take on the Brits who say ‘different to’ instead of the American ‘different from’.

    Good luck with that! ;^ )

  • Dom Kilburn

    To remind yourself each time, just think of what the Bard himself wrote…..”I compare thee ‘to’ a summer’s day (easy!).

  • Maeve

    Dom,
    One reason that many members of the younger generation do not know which particle to use with certain words is that they’ve not been required to study traditional literature.

  • dee

    thank you! one relief in things is clarity, and you have just presented me some with your site. good show!

  • Evelyn Li

    Would you please tell me what grammatical error does the following sentence have?

    Compared with 1990, the number of teaching staff has increased.

    And also, what is the difference betwen the usage of “compared with” and “comparing with” ?

  • Dave

    The sentence ‘Compared with 1990, the number of teaching staff has increased’ sounds odd, as if the number of teaching staff is being compared with the year 1990. It’s also slightly ambiguous, because it could be interpreted as stating that in 1990 the number of teaching staff did not increase, in contrast with the present year.

    A better way to express the meaning, in my opinion, is
    Since 1990, the number of teaching staff has increased.

    “Comparing with” is, to my knowledge, uncommon, and refers to an implicit object that is being compared, as in “Comparing with states of nineteenth-century Europe, one sees many democratic innovations in modern Central America.”

  • Lynne

    HElp me please!!! How do I explain the use of compared to??? That is, why do we use comparED? In my study, the rsults of sample A will be comparED to sample B.. Why compared?? it isn’t the past

  • Maeve

    Lynne,
    In your example, “compared” is the past participle form of the verb being used to create a construction in passive voice. Compare:

    The boss will compare sample A to sample B.
    Sample A will be compared to sample B.

  • Soraya Khairuddin

    Hi. When should we use ‘un’ and ‘non’?
    Example: ‘undyed samples’ vs ‘nondyed samples’.
    Is it a matter of usage or are there specific rules governing the use of the two?

  • Maeve

    Soraya,
    The idiomatic choice here is “undyed.” You may want to read my post at http://bottomlineenglish.com/when-to-use-the-negative-prefixes-un-and-non

  • Shalem Arasavelli

    Good discussion. Thanks to all..

  • HohInn

    Pls advise. Should I use “compared with” or “compared to”?
    “Overall, there was a drop by 20% in the number of SIRs raised as compared with August 2011”

  • NixieNox

    This is a good explanation, but I’m not sure it’s an ironclad rule. Consider the sentences: “Compared to dogs, cats are quiet.” and “Compared with dogs, cats are quiet.” I prefer the first sentence, even though the stress is on differences between to things of essentially the same order. Either this is a set sort of phrase that is an exception to a more stringent rule, the rule is in flux, or the more forgiving view as espoused in the Penguin explanation is preferable. I think the last is probably the case.

  • Anthony Rose

    NixieNox. I really like what you have to say. I feel though that even the Penguin explanation is not ideal.
    Personally, I think the preposition “to” implies a leading towards, i.e., bringing two subjects together which are not normally together nor expected to be in comparison. So comparing the noise of cats to dogs makes sense because cats are, and are expected to be, different to dogs.
    Whereas “with” implies togetherness, i.e. subjects which are related in some way and can be expected to be compared.
    (And these hold regardless of the desired similarity or degree of difference to be shown.)
    So for example, if I were to compare the abilities of two racing drivers, I would say “Compared to A, B is very aggressive”, or “Compared to A, B’s driving is not unusual”, because they are two different individuals who are far more than their racing aggression levels or one aspect of their style. I am choosing to bring them together for this comparison of just one of their attributes.
    However, if I were to compare their accident statistics, I would say, “Compared with A’s accident rate in 2012, B’s is very high”, because these simple statistics are very much in the same set and can be expected to be compared. I do not have to lead the one to the other, they are in the same book.

  • Keith A

    1. As I understand the matter, “compare to” is to liken the two items;
    and “compare with” is to assess the degree of likeness — point by point, often. This is in line with AP.
    Thus, Shakespeare: Shall I compare thee TO a summer’s day?’ Then he proceeds to compare WITH, favouring his beloved.

    2. Evelyn Li:
    (a) Dave’s rephrasing us the natural form. I often see”more … in comparison to …” in place of the natural “more … than …”. The former is merely useless padding — and misleading, to boot.
    (b) Evelyn’s request itself has a problem: a direst question posing as an indirect. Remedy thus:
    “Would you please tell me what grammatical error the following sentence has?”
    (c) “Comparing with” — What is the subject of the verb form “comparing”? It has to be you, or I, or we; whereas for compared, the subject is the item being compared.

  • Amir G

    Thank you for this post, and the clear distinctions, comparing “compared with” with “compared to,” as it were…
    I see way too much peer-reviewed, published scientific research using “compared to” to refer to differences analyzed across groups of interest (e.g., patients in Group A vs. B), so it has become a standard practice, even though grammatically it rubs me the wrong way.

  • Jonathan Comparet

    Thank you for the explanation of the differences between compared “to” vs compared “with”. Having worked in a field where the use of the word “compare” is very high and generally poorly understood grammatically, it is very nice to read a concise summary.

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