I have long felt that the taboo on comparing anyone to Hitler and many similar inhibitions were based on a confusion between “compare” in the senses of “liken to” and in the sense of “compare and contrast”, and this answer on Science Fiction & Fantasy gave me the idea of asking here how to express this effectively.

The formulations that occur to me are

  • liken A to B” for “suggest that A is (very) similar to B” (sometimes risky)
  • compare and contrast A and B” for “consider various attributes of A and B and evaluate how similar they are in each such attribute” (usually useful),

but the latter seems a wee bit long-winded. Wiktionary suggests “compare A to B” and “compare A with B” respectively, but I am not convinced that that distinction is widely recognised. There is perhaps also the sense of using one feature of something well known to make a description more effective (thou art more lovely and more temperate), but that seems more a matter of rhetoric than of a pitfall in thinking.

Can anyone suggest preferably terse and widely recognised ways of expressing these senses unambiguously, and of pointing out that someone is confusing them?

  • Compare seems to say that the two things being compared have a common set of attributes but the values of those attributes may be different: the height of one person compared to the height of another. Contrast implies looking at attributes that are not common: A has a moustache but B doesn’t. – Jim Mar 3 '16 at 1:18
  • I suspect you misunderstand the issue with regard to Hitler. – Hot Licks Mar 3 '16 at 1:22
  • @HotLicks: Can you explain? I think likening to Hitler is dodgy, but analysing differences and similarities often desirable or essential. – PJTraill Mar 3 '16 at 1:26
  • @Jim: surely we also contrast a tall and a short person? Compare and contrast is (or was) of course a common formulation in examination questions. – PJTraill Mar 3 '16 at 1:28
  • The problem is that in any way comparing a person to Hitler is deemed pejorative. I mean, even if you say "He's at the opposite extreme from Hitler" that's damning with faint praise. – Hot Licks Mar 3 '16 at 1:29

I like to distinguish between comparing and equating.

In an argument, unfortunately, you cannot logically convince someone not to use a dishonest tactic against you. If someone wants to dismiss your line of reasoning because they do not like a comparison, and they fail to understand the difference between a comparison you gave to illustrate a point, vs a comparison you made to try and logically assert your point (ie an actual "argument by analogy" fallacy) it's unlikely that you'll convince them to behave otherwise.

When I say "rocks, bananas, and the service of prostitutes can all be purchased for money" I am certainly comparing one aspect of all of those things, and yet we all agree these things are very different. Does that mean my sentence is inaccurate? Of course not. It means that I am comparing them, but not equating them.

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