July 28, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Compare with/to & sweat or sweated

Posted in compare to/with, compare with and to, sweat/sweated at 6:19 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Compare with or compare to

A reader writes:

Do we compare something ‘with’ (its rates were higher compared with those of the other firms) or ‘to’  (its rates were higher compared to those of the other firms)?

When do we use ‘compare to’ and when do we use ‘compare with’? This question has come up a couple of times but remains a sticking point for many. Let me give you a rule of thumb, and then, I will try and explain the difference.

The rule of thumb is this: Always use ‘compare with.’ It is correct in every situation, and the same cannot be said for ‘compare to.’

Although that is changing. More and more, the two words are used interchangeably, and I expect that the differences will continue to diminish over time; however, for now, many readers perceive a difference between the two, and it is somewhat risky not to heed the difference.

This is it: In research, and in science in general, when we compare things, we are concerned with understanding and itemizing both the similarities and the differences. That is where ‘compare with’ comes in. When we use ‘compare with,’ we are looking at the things that are alike as well as those aspects that are distinctive.

So what about ‘compare to’? Most grammar and usage books say that ‘compare to’ is used when we just look at the similarities. And that is true, but it is confusing. So ‘compare with’ means we are looking at the similarities and difference, but with ‘compare to,’ we are just looking at just the similarities. Huh?

Forget that. With ‘compare to,’ we are not examining whether certain aspects are similar, it is more than that. We are saying the things are alike (either literally or figuratively). ‘Compare to’ means ‘equate to’ or ‘liken to,’ and it should (for now) be used only in those cases where we are stating that the things are somehow alike.

When Shakespeare wrote in his eighteenth sonnet,

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

He was asking, shall I liken thee to a summer’s day?

Here is another quote:

Fly fishing may be a very pleasant amusement; but angling or float fishing I can only compare to a stick and a string, with a worm at one end and a fool at the other.

Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), British author, lexicographer.

Here, Samuel Johnson  (this is sometimes attributed to Jonathan Swift) is saying that float fishing is like using a stick and a string.

If I had to choose, I would compare this movie to the Lion in Winter rather than to Camelot.

Here, the speaker is saying that the movie in question is more like the Lion in Winter than Camelot.

Going back to the original question, the writer isn’t likening the rates to those of other firms, she is comparing the rates, so the correct form would be ‘compare with.’

I hope this help clarifies the difference. If it doesn’t, don’t worry; just wait awhile, and the differences will fade away eventually.

Tip 2: Sweat or sweated

I thought this tip was timely and, certainly, weather appropriate.

Is the past tense of ‘to sweat’ ‘sweat’ or ‘sweated’?

This is another one of those cases in which the traditional view is evolving and in the process of change, but here goes.

When referring to the physical process of sweating, the past tense of ‘to sweat’ is ‘sweat.’

 [NOTE: This is true for American English but not for British English in which the past tense is ‘sweated.’]

So, here, it is correct to say:

It was so hot last week, we all sweat like crazy.

However, if you are referring to ‘sweat’ in a more figurative sense, ‘sweated’ would be the appropriate past tense form.

We sweated bullets while waiting to see if the grant proposal would be funded.

We  sweated over the details of the methods before putting pen to paper.

As I said, however, this is a case where the definitions are becoming more relaxed, and you will see ‘sweated’ used to represent the physical meaning more often.

It was so hot last week, we all sweated like crazy.

This change is coming rapidly, so if you can’t remember which form to use, I wouldn’t sweat it—odds are no one will notice.


  1. Paul said,

    A followup question: does that mean it should always be “comparable to” rather than “comparable with”?

    • dlseltzer said,

      That’s right. A thing is comparable to something. When using comparable, we are likening something to something else, so the ‘to’ is called for.

  2. Quora said,

    When should you use “compare” with “to” and when should use it with “with”?…

    Generally, you use “to” when you when to point out similarities and “with” when you want to point out differences. In this respect, Strunk and White, Ap Style Book, and Penguin Writer’s manual and other sites agree[1][4]. So if I’m comparing some…

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