Idioms with Compare

By Maeve Maddox

The verb compare comes from Latin comparare, “to pair together, couple, match, bring together.” It occurs in four common English idioms.

to compare someone or something to someone or something
to compare someone or something with someone or something
to compare notes on something or someone
to compare apples and oranges

compare with or to
Many speakers use “compare to” and “compare with” interchangeably; doing so is not an error. However, many writers observe a difference between the two. The Chicago Manual of Style does not state the difference as a rule, but does mention it in the section called “Good usage versus common usage:

To compare with is to discern both similarities and differences between things.
To compare to is to note primarily similarities between things.

For example, in the context of discussing the history of wartime nursing, one might compare Clara Barton to Florence Nightingale and be done with it; both women are noted for caring for wounded men on the battlefield.

Compare with would be reserved for a detailed comparison that notes differences between two people who are similar in some respects, but not in others.

compare notes
“To compare notes” means “to compare observations.” For example, friends attending a conference might go to different sessions and later talk to each other about what they learned. Students reading the same novel might compare notes on their individual impressions.

compare apples to oranges
“To compare apples and oranges” is usually used in a context in which two things are so different from one another as to defy meaningful comparison. For example, the tiny country of Finland is often held up as a model for U.S. public education, but American educators protest in such statements as this: “Finland has free health care and preschool. We don’t. You’re comparing apples to oranges.”

Related post: Compared to or compared with?

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4 Responses to “Idioms with Compare”

  • venqax

    That is an interesting distinction on Chicago’s part, but do you know what it is based on? I just can’t think of any reason why compare “to” would imply emphasis on similitarities while “with” would imply both similarities and differences. To and with don’t seem to deliver that argument. What about stressing differences? Would that be “contrasting” as opposed to comparing, i.e. the old “compare and contrast” bugaboo that we’ve been misinformed about so many times? Hmm…

  • venqax

    I am glad Chicago has taken a stand on good vs common usage. we need more of those vertabrae from language institutions. In this case, though, I have to ask why, “To compare with is to discern both similarities and differences between things.” While, “To compare to is to note primarily similarities between things.” Based on what? I don’t see anything inherent in *to* or *with* that would support that particular distinction. And what about discernment primarily of differences? Is that supposed to be contrasting rather than comparing, as in the old “compare and contrast” bugaboo we’ve been misinformed about so many times? Hmm…

  • Dale A. Wood

    To Venqax:
    The subject of the article is “Idioms with Compare”, yet you ask whe question “Why?”.
    The very nature of idioms is that there are NOT any “whys”.
    Idioms are the way that they are arbitrarily, and there are not any “whys” about them.
    It seems to me that every time the word “idiom” comes up, you fall into the same Burmese tiger trap of asking “why” — when there is not any “why”.
    “Wherefore art thou Romeo” was an idiom of the time of Shakespeare, and we do not have it anymore….
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    Apologies for the double post. The first one didn’t show up for a very long time for some reason, so I thought it was lost.

    @DAW: Not at all. Something being an idiom doesn’t necessarily mean it makes no sense, only that it is not be taken literally and that it has a widely recognized meaning other than its literal one. Jump the gun, high as a kite, a-dime-a-dozen, are all idiomatic expressions that are hyperbolic or figurative but not nonsensical. And they have very un-idiomatic “whys”. And even if an idiom does not make sense it has an origin. Little in language “just is”. There is almost always a reason for a saying or usage, even if it’s based on a mistake.
    Furthermore, the article says that *compare to* and *compare with *are both idiomatic expressions. It does NOT imply that the CMOS’s recommended distinction between the differences in meaning between those 2 expressions is itself idiomatic. Quite the opposite. The implication that the distinction is good as opposed to common would mean that it is NOT idiomatic. Do you see that difference? In sum,* compare with* and *compare to* are both idioms. The notion that compare to means one thing and compare with means another, however, is NOT idiomatic. And whether idiomatic or not, the idea must come from somewhere.

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