Making Comparisons

apples and oranges

I have evolved from being a pretty stringent prescriptivist in my grammar column writing days to having a much more lenient view of grammar and usage now. I have bought the rather compelling argument that if educated speakers regularly confuse lay and lie, or use the subject pronoun in phrases like “The boss invited my wife and I”—and they do—then there is obviously something wrong with the rules. In fact, correct usage should and often does reflect actual usage, but there can be a bit of a lag. Both usage and meanings change all the time. Eighty years ago purists vigorously opposed the use of contact as a verb, much as today many intensely dislike the use of impact as a verb. In reality, English constantly and naturally turns nouns in into verbs. I once wrote that we sometimes cringe when writers use nouns as verbs because they seem to be trying to woolify our eyes with what they imagine is impressive prose. Indeed, the verb impact often occurs in contexts that are ridden with convoluted management-speak. But ultimately, there is nothing wrong with nouns becoming verbs.

So in fact, what a majority of educated speakers actually say determines usage. But I recently received an email from a friend who is a highly educated native speaker of English with an excellent command of the language. He asked whether “compared to” or “compare with” is correct. He was looking for confirmation of his belief that only “compared to” is correct. Now it’s tempting to conclude that if an educated speaker is confused about this usage, then the phrases should probably be considered interchangeable. But in fact there is a nice difference in nuance between the two that it would be a shame to lose.

To compare to something to something else is to point out resemblances between objects regarded as essentially different. For example, I can compare life to a game of bridge—you have to play with the cards you were dealt.

“Compare to” can also be used for things that are essentially the same if the intent is to point out the similarities: “I hesitate to compare my blog to yours, but in fact we’re both writing about grammar.”

To compare something with something else is to point out differences between objects that are essentially of the same order, when the differences are as important as the similarities. For example, I can compare travel by plane with travel by car.

But used transitively, only “with” is correct: For speed, travel by car can’t compare with travel by plane.

So here is a case where the Sprachgefühl of the native speaker is not a reliable guide to a correct usage that is really worth preserving. And if Sprachgefühl, a German word meaning “an intuitive feel for the natural idiom of a langusge,” has really entered the English lexicon, I suppose I shouldn’t capitalize it. All German nouns are capitalized. German also has a possessive construction very similar to that of English but gets along fine without the apostrophe. We could learn a lot from the Germans.


4 thoughts on “Making Comparisons

  1. Alan, you neglected to punctuate this properly:

    “For speed travel by car can’t compare with travel by plane.”

    What did you miss?

    Cheers, Reuben!


      1. Clever bunt! …. you added the comma when nobody was looking!

        A more appropriate response would have been, “thank you, Reuben!”

        Liked by 1 person

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