Compare to vs. compare with

When I was a beginning editor, old-timers coached me on the difference between “compare to” and “compare with.” They were different, these experienced editors explained, and couldn’t be used interchangeably. “Compare to,” they said, shows how things are alike, as in “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and “compare with” means to examine the differences and likenesses of two or more things, “How do last year’s earnings compare with this year’s?”

It wasn’t till much later I learned that editors can be wrong. How does that happen? How do people who get paid to fix word usage 40 hours a week misunderstand word usage? They assume that the rules of their job apply to the whole world. Imagine a teacher who every day tells kids, “No chewing gum! Spit it out!” walking up to a fellow shopper at her local grocery store and saying, “No chewing gum! Spit it out!” So when these veteran wordsmiths told me “compare to” and “compare with” were a matter of right and wrong, not a matter of style, they were wrong.

If you’re an editor who works for a publication that uses Associated Press style, you’d be correct to enforce a difference between “compare to” and “compare with” in articles you edit because that’s AP’s rule: “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.’”

The Chicago Manual of Style, which book editors follow, has the same rule. So if you’re writing for publication, by all means follow their advice. But in the real world, worrying about whether you should put “to” or a “with” after “compare” is a waste of time.

In fact, you probably comply with the editing guides without realizing it. Here's my recent column explaining how.

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