Q: A lot of style guides distinguish between “compare to” and “compare with,” but the Oxford Dictionaries website says this distinction is rarely seen in practice. They’ve always seemed interchangeable to me. What do you think?
A: The usage note that got your attention—in the US edition of Oxford Dictionaries—describes the traditional rule, then adds: “In practice, however, this distinction is rarely maintained.”
The British edition of Oxford Dictionaries goes even further, saying “the distinction is not clear-cut,” and the two phrases can be used interchangeably.
The traditional rule can be summarized this way: “Compare with” is used to examine for similarities and differences (often between things of the same type). “Compare to” is used to show a similarity (often between things that are quite different).
It’s possible that the Oxford editors are overstating the case. Yes, English is losing the distinction between “compare with” and “compare to,” but it’s not quite lost yet.
It may be gone, however, by the time Pat publishes a fourth edition of her grammar book Woe Is I. She included the old dictum in the third edition, but played it down: “Don’t lose sleep over this one. The difference is subtle.”
In fact, the distinction is so subtle that some modern usage guides and standard dictionaries disagree on exactly how “compare with” and “compare to” differ.
Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), for example, says both “compare with” and “compare to” are normally used to examine for similarities and differences, while Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) says only “compare with” is used this way.
However, the two usage guides agree that “compare to” is generally used to point out similarities.
The Collins English Dictionary, generally following the traditional rule, says “compare” is usually followed by “to” when showing similarities, and by “with” when showing similarities or differences.
The online Merriam Webster’s Unabridged says either preposition can be used for either purpose.
We’ve checked eight standard dictionaries in all, and no two are alike in describing the use of “compare with” and “compare to.”
Confused? You’re not alone. Then is anybody paying attention to the traditional rule? Well, sort of.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage examined modern examples of how “compare with” and “compare to” were actually used by writers.
The usage guide found that the old rule “is more often observed than not” when “compare” is used in the sense of “liken”—that is, to show similarities. Among the examples cited are these:
“The deeds of modern heroes are constantly compared to those of Greek and Roman epic and legend” (Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition, 1949).
“They were blue, but a blue so deep that I can only compare it to the color of the night sky” (Robert Penn Warren, Partisan Review, fall 1944).
“Though to be compared to Homer passed the time pleasantly” (William Butler Yeats, The Trembling of the Veil, 1922).
However, the usage guide did find some literary examples in which “with” was used in the “liken” sense.
In a Feb. 2, 1953, citation from the New Republic, for instance, Stephen Spender discusses a poem in which “images seen are compared with sounds heard.”
The editors of the M-W usage guide found “more variation in practice” when “compare” was used in the sense of “examine so as to discover resemblances and differences.”
“Our citations show that more writers use with (as the basic rule prescribes) than to, but the numerical difference between the majority and the minority is not as great as for the ‘liken’ sense,” they wrote.
The usage guide includes examples of both “compare with” and “compare to” used in the “examine” sense. Here are two of them:
“But he is at least a forerunner of what is now called Humanism, of which I must here say something, if only to contrast it and compare it with the Aestheticism of Pater” (T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 1932).
“Of five children two died in infancy and of the other three only Susana could be compared to her ancestors in fiber” (George Santayana, Persons and Places, 1944).
The M-W guide adds that it’s often difficult to tell whether a writer is using “compare” in the “examine” or the “liken” sense. It cites the Santayana quote above as an example of such ambiguity.
Yes, it’s a fine mess, all right. You asked us for our opinion, and here it is.
First of all, it’s not something to hyperventilate over. Although a lot of good writers follow the traditional rule, others don’t.
For the time being, we’d recommend using “to” if “liken” could be substituted for “compare.” Otherwise, let your ear decide—use whichever preposition sounds better and seems more natural to you: “to” or “with.”
If you’re interested, we discussed the history of “compare” on the blog a few years ago in a post about words of equivalence.
English got the verb from French, but it ultimately comes from Latin, where comparare means “to pair together, couple, match, bring together,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
When it was first used in English writing in 1447, the OED says, “compare” was generally followed by “to” and meant “to speak of or represent as similar; to liken.”
Here’s an example from Thomas Starkey, written sometime before 1538: “The one may … be comparyd to the body & the other to the soule.”
The OED says a broader sense emerged in the early 1500s: “to mark or point out the similarities and differences of (two or more things); to bring or place together (actually or mentally) for the purpose of noting the similarities and differences.”
Historically, the OED citations show, “compare” has been accompanied by either “with” or “to” when used in the sense of marking similarities and differences. We’ll end with examples using each preposition.
“Whats … the world it self … if compared to the least visible Star in the Firmament?” (From Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, which first appeared in 1621 though there were later editions.)
“To compare Great things with small.” (From John Milton’s Paradise Lost, 1667.)