Archive for October, 2007|Monthly archive page

Comparison and Contrast

We spend almost every moment of our lives trying to make sense of the world by putting things into categories. If we are junior-high school teachers, we wonder if a new student will be an easy-going chap who adapts to classroom rules, or a trouble-maker. In either case, we are comparing and contrasting that kid with other kids we have taught. Those of us with children of our own do the same. We look at our kids (if we have more than one) and ask, Why is the older one better at reading than the younger one? Why does the younger one have more friends than the older one? Why are both kids smarter than me? As we ask these questions, we are comparing and contrasting.

Comparison shows the similarities between two things. Contrast shows the differences. A comparison-and-contrast paragraph shows how two things are alike or how they differ, or both. Comparison-and-contrast essays are useful for writing about almost any topic. They are good for writing about history (the similarities between the Turkish annihilation of the Armenians and the German annihilation of the Jews, for example), about the similarities between luxury cars, about the relative merits of low-carb and low-fat diets.

What follows are five paragraphs making a point-by-point comparison between two forms of transportation:

When I moved to New York City in 1979, it was impossible to board a subway train without some glitch making the journey a miserable experience; a long delay (compounded by the conductor rarely giving an explanation), a gang of cigarette-puffing thugs marching through the cars, broken air-conditioning on the hottest day in July, a re-routed train depositing me forty blocks north of my destination. By 1983, I began bicycling to Manhattan. I quickly discovered a number of advantages. First, it was good exercise. Wearing my Walkman, I pedaled the ten miles between my home near Prospect Park and my job on West 46th Street; over a period of six months, I lost fifteen pounds. Riding a bicycle was also cheap. The subway fare was a dollar, so I saved two dollars a day, or ten dollars a week; no small amount considering I was making a weekly $140. I also saw a city that, had I been riding the subway, my nose buried in the Daily News, I would have missed.

I saw huge cranes making buildings rise. I saw new cafes, seemingly opening overnight. I saw exotic and beautiful people in clothes that looked as if they had been manufactured on Jupiter. I saw potholes spewing steam, trucks delivering frozen pigs to the meat district, yellow school buses unloading bearded Jews in the diamond district. And during my bike rides, I got the weather.

I cycled when it was ten degrees out and my fingers froze, even with two pairs of gloves. I cycled when it was 101 degrees out, sweat-drenched shoppers staggering from one air-conditioned store to the next. I cycled in pouring rain and blinding snow and, if I were lucky, on cloudless days when the sky was bluer than a robin’s egg.

Best of all, twice each day, I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, the spider-cabled thread that connects Brooklyn to Manhattan. The bridge, with its stone towers and wooden bike path and mighty view of two boroughs passively facing each other, was a time machine; a daily reminder that going from Brooklyn to Manhattan was as difficult as it had been in 1883.

Once, as I crossed from Manhattan to Brooklyn at 6 am, soft snow was falling. The pre-dawn sky was purple-black, and I was the only one on the bridge. Suddenly, my wheels slid out from under me, and I hit the snow-covered boards, gently sliding a good fifteen feet. It did not hurt. When I stopped sliding, I lay on my back, staring at the stone towers, the purple sky behind them, snow falling on my face. Wanting to stay there forever, I raised my head and saw, half a mile away, the Manhattan Bridge. And in the middle of the bridge was a delayed D-train, its passengers staring morosely out their windows at me and at the snow they could not feel.


Below are a number of topics for a comparison and contrast paragraph. Choose one of them or choose your own. Make sure the comparison you choose is valid. For example, unless you plan on being funny, do not compare and contrast pineapples and nuclear bombs.

Two popular singers or bands
Chocolate versus sex
A life of public service versus a life of selfish gain.
How you speak when you are with friends and family versus how you speak at work.
A good-looking lover versus a homely one.
Whisky versus beer.
How we chose our friends when we are six-years-old versus how we choose our friends now.
Public schools versus private schools.
Your mother compared to your father.
The worst two jobs you ever had.
Macs versus PCs


Cause and Effect Paragraph

A cause makes a thing happen; an effect is what results when that thing happens. If you brush your teeth and your teeth get whiter, then brushing is the cause and whitening is the effect. A cause-and-effect paragraph helps a reader understand why things happen: the weakening of the ozone layer, the war in Vietnam, the spike in teenage obesity.

While cause-and-effect paragraphs may be indispensable to writers who explain politics, human behavior, or the hard sciences, they can also be misleading. If a school, for example, has high reading scores, it may have nothing to do with the quality of teaching and everything to do with students the school has recruited. If I happen to be an honest fellow with good study habits and the ability to make friends, it may have nothing to do with how my parents raised me and everything to do with my genes.

Nevertheless, a cause-and-effect paragraph can be a valuable tool for explaining outcomes and trends, and an excellent way to predict future trends

Sample Cause-And-Effect Paragraph

In New York City, fifty percent of all public school teachers leave the profession within their first five years on the job. While the teachers union and some politicos have charged that the high attrition rate is due to the salary gap between city teachers and their brethren in the suburbs, the real problem is student behavior. There are approximately 1.1 million public school students, and many of them, especially those in poor neighborhoods, have family problems that make it hard for them to sit still for five hours a day. These students may come from homes with no books, where TV sets blare all day, where no parent or older sibling has a college degree, where generations of kids have found the world of academics foreign, frustrating, and fruitless. Because many of these students cannot read a menu or calculate two-digit addition problems, they find long hours in the classroom tortuous. And while classrooms can absorb one or two of these kids—that is, the teacher can teach with a minimum of disruption—classrooms with four or more problem students reach a critical mass. The bad kids tip the good kids, and the simplest lesson becomes a test of wills between teacher and student. Only the most patient, most gifted teacher can endure more than a couple of years of these daily battles. If she wants to keep teaching, she flees for greener pastures —schools like Bronx Science, Stuyvesant, Midwood—or a school in Westchester. The result is alarming: perhaps half of the city’s 1000 schools have green-horn teachers with only a few years experience. Many of these novices don’t know their subjects and don’t know how to control a room filled with difficult kids. Many soon find non-teaching jobs. As a result, the teaching profession, at least the way it’s practiced in New York City, becomes a form of slumming, or something to do until you grow up—like the Peace Corps or the army.

Choose one of the following topics and write a cause and effect paragraph

Why is Paris Hilton, someone with minimal talent and iffy looks, so popular?
What is one cause of weight gain?
Why has President Bush, despite his frat-boy persona and mangled syntax, won so many elections?
Why do women, despite their frequent denials, love macho men?
Despite so much evidence that prayer does not work, why do so many people persist in praying fervently and often?
Why is it preferable (or silly) to marry someone of your own ethnicity or religion?
Why hasn’t soccer, the world’s most popular sport, caught on in America?
How does smoking marijuana affect your mental or physical health?
Why does flattery work, even when the person being flattered knows you are a lying liar?
Why do men and women cheat?
What is the effect of high interest rates on the stock market?
Although it is fake, why is professional wrestling so popular?
Choose your own topic.


Process Paragraphs

A process paragraph is a series of steps that explain how something happens. Or it explains how to make something. It can explain anything from the growth of a malignancy to parallel parking to baking sourdough bread. It gives tips for conquering insomnia or for removing nose hair. Because such explanations must be clear, the process paragraph must be written in chronological order, and it must include a topic sentence that clearly states the paragraph’s purpose. It must also include transition words and phrases—“first,” “next,” “finally,” for example—that connect each of the steps.

There are two kinds of process paragraphs: a process explanation and a set of instructions. A process explanation explains a process without assuming that the reader will afterwards know how to carry out that process. A set of instructions gives the reader step-by-step guidance.

The following is an example of a process explanation paragraph:

How I Deal With My Nephew’s Obsessions.

Some years ago, my nephew was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), meaning he often becomes fixated on making something happen that is impractical or impossible. Over the years I have learned, through trial and error, that by taking the following steps I can calm him when he gets into one of his OCD jags. First, I calm myself. I have to stay calm because at first sign of trouble—that, for instance, he has become stuck on buying a cat we have seen in an animal shelter—I become irritated, even enraged. So I tell myself, This is not the end of the world. I tell myself, His fixation might go on for an hour, but no longer. After I am calm, I listen with a sympathetic ear to the problem. I ask him to tell me what he wants, and I let him talk as long as he wants. I also make a mental note to give the conversation at least ten minutes, even checking my watch to make sure that I do not interrupt (unless asked) until a full ten minutes has passed. Ten minutes might not seem like a long time, but when I anticipate ten hours devoted to one, apparently-trivial problem, ten hours that could be devoted to his sister’s needs (I sometimes baby-sit both of them), I am bound to be impatient. Sometimes, ten to fifteen minutes of active listening will solve the problem. And while he talks, I make sure to maintain eye contact, which reinforces the idea that my listening is sincere. If this doesn’t work, I try to distract him by changing the subject. “Before I forget,” I might say, “did you hear the Mets are thinking of trading Reyes?” Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, and he is about to suffer an atomic meltdown, I have one more weapon: candy.

1. In the above paragraph, what is the topic sentence?

2. Is this an explanation paragraph or a set of instructions or a combination of both?

3. Below, list each of the steps in the process:
a. _________________________________________

b. _________________________________________

c. _________________________________________

d. _________________________________________

c. _________________________________________

Choose one of the following topics and write a process paragraph

How to choose a gift for a new boyfriend or girlfriend
How to use a word-processing program to insert footnotes
How to develop a powerful tennis serve.
How to clean a bathroom
How to make friends
How to find a boyfriend or a girlfriend
How to make the perfect tunafish sandwich
How to change an o-ring on a leaky faucet
How to make turkey stuffing
Choose your own topic


Writing tip:
A great author said that the last thing he writes in a novel is the beginning. He meant that we do not know what we want to say until we have finished saying it. When writing a paragraph, you might have to change your thesis sentence to fit the thesis. If, for example, you are a diabetic writing a process paragraph about testing your blood for insulin levels, your original thesis might be about using the testing apparatus. But, after writing the paragraph, you might discover that the thesis you’ve written is more about the pain of having to prick your finger every few hours than about the apparatus. So, you might change “The Accu-Chek kit is an economical, easy-to-use blood-testing kit” to “At first, most of us are squeamish about pricking our fingers, but in a surprisingly short period of time, we get used to it.”