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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Writer Mag Column 15: Comparisons

Dare to compare: Watch out when you’re making comparisons

When looking for a romantic partner, you may make a mental list of attributes and then compare various men or women with your ideal. But you can't make a love connection if the two of you are incompatible. In the same vein, when writing a sentence, you must compare two like items in a way that makes sense to readers. If you don't, you could end up with an incompatible, vague or one-sided comparison.

Comparisons can be tricky. In your mind, you're comparing two of the same item, but sometimes what you write doesn't come out as you intended. Comparing correctly is all about balance. Your readers are happily motoring along in your story. When they see an item that is being compared, their minds expect the other half of the equation to match up. If you inadvertently compare two incompatible things, though, readers will be miffed and confused.

When you see comparison words such as "than," "like," "unlike," "similar," "different," "more" and "less," be aware that an incorrect comparison may be lurking. Take this Criminal Sentence as an example of what not to do:

Unlike married couples, dating may be required for you.

This sentence inaccurately compares "married couples" and "dating." Oops. A casual listener will probably understand that you're comparing "married couples" and single "you." But it's better to be precise and compare similar things. In this case, the sentence should compare "married couples" to some other person:

Unlike married couples, you may need to date.

This Criminal Sentence incorrectly compares "appearance" to "beauty queens":

Her appearance was said to rival beauty queens.

This is a sneaky sentence because it doesn't use one of the "watch-out" words. Instead, the verb "rival" indicates a comparison. Let's rewrite this sentence using two common strategies for ensuring you're comparing two compatible things.

1. Use "that" or "those" to stand in for the second side of the comparison: Her appearance was said to rival that of beauty queens.

Here, we've compared the singular noun "appearance" to the singular pronoun "that." Although this has become a formal-sounding sentence, it is grammatically correct. If you don't like this strategy, move on to the next solution.

2. Reword the sentence. This is often the best option because doing so allows you to avoid vague comparisons. A sentence such as "A is better than B" doesn't communicate much information. If you make your comparisons more specific, you'll not only get rid of any potential comparison problem, but you'll also write a better sentence, as here: She was so beautiful that she rivaled Miss America.

One-sided comparisons are almost as bad. Get it? "Almost as bad as what?" you might ask. (Almost as bad as incorrect comparisons.) Writers often forget to finish the other side of the equation, and that leaves readers hanging. And it's often hard to recognize that you've done so, mostly because you've finished the thought inside your head instead of on the paper. Let's work on this Criminal Sentence:

This hair gel is more effective for attracting ladies.

This sentence is missing the "than" part. Although it may be difficult to recognize that you've left out vital information, it's easy to fix one-sided comparisons once you’ve found them. Either add the missing part or make it a more specific comparison. Using the first technique, we come up with this now-balanced sentence:

This hair gel is more effective than hairspray for attracting ladies.

Useful information, I'm sure, but let's go a bit further and make this comparison even more specific and useful:

While hairspray can help you lure a potential mate, this neon pink hair gel will really attract the ladies.

You're almost ready to launch yourself into the world of comparisons. I just want to warn you about one other teensy comparison-related mistake: Remember not to use "then" instead of "than." Therefore, you're not allowed to brag to a date, "I know more about comparisons then the average person." It's more "than."

Please fix these Criminal Sentences and send your rewrites to

1: My expectations are completely different from everyone else.
2: Unlike muscles in the rotator cuff, surgery is the only way to repair a labrum tear.
3: The tennis player was more dominant.
4: Like the store's competitors, skyrocketing fuel costs have hurt its bottom line.

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