2

A longstanding question on English Language & Usage asks "Compared with" vs "Compared to"—which is used when? and has drawn several useful answers. But the question doesn’t invite answers to questions about the origin of the rule itself.

Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1989) dedicates more than two full pages to a discussion of compare to versus compare with. In the course of its discussion, WDEU cites a letter written by Theodore Bernstein to the editor of Word Study in 1947, asserting that the rule about when to use compare with and when to use compare to first appeared in Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language (1847). Here is the 1847 Webster's dictionary's entry for compare as a verb:

COMPARE, v. t. ...

1. To set or bring things together in fact or in contemplation, and to examine the relations they bear to each other, with a view to ascertain their agreement or disagreement ; as, to compare two pieces of cloth, two tables, or coins ; to compare reasons and arguments ; to compare pleasure with pain.

In comparing movable things, it is customary to bring them together, for examination. In comparing things immovable or remote, and abstract ideas, we bring them together in the mind, as far as we are able, and consider them in connection. Comparison therefore is really collation, or it includes it.

2. To liken ; to represent as similar, for the purpose of illustration.

Solon compared the people to the sea, and orators and counsellors to the winds ; for that the sea would be calm and quiet, if the winds did not trouble it. Bacon.

In this sense compare is followed by to.

3. To examine the relations of things to each other, with a view to discover their relative proportions, quantities, or qualities ; as, to compare two kingdoms, or two mountains, with each other ; to compare the number ten with fifteen ; to compare ice with crystal ; to compare a clown with a dancing-master or a dandy.

In this sense compare is followed by with.

WDEU focuses its attention on twentieth-century usage, so it doesn’t reach any conclusion about whether the rule spelled out by Webster's 1847 dictionary reflected actual practice or only the preferences of Noah Webster. It concludes that current (in 1989) practice in English is (on the one hand) to use compare to "more often than not" when the sense of the active verb is "liken" but (on the other) to use compared to and compared with "about equally after the past participle" when the sense of the verb is "examined so as to discover the resemblances and differences."

Without getting too caught up in the side issue of whether common usage ever definitively supported the rule that appears in Webster’s 1847 dictionary, I would like to know two things:

  1. When was the rule about when to use compared to and when to use compared with first set down in a published work?

  2. Who was the author of that first statement of the rule?

2

Although Theodore Bernstein was certainly correct in asserting that An American Dictionary of the English Language (1847) offers a fairly elaborate exposition of the rule in question, he was not correct in suggesting that Webster first offered this exposition in 1847. The very same language appears in the entry for the verb compare in the first version of Webster's full-scale dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828).

So any prior statement of Webster’s rule must beat that date, not 1847. In early editions of Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (1756), there is no discussion of what preposition should follow compare in different situations:

To COMPARE. v. a. {comparo, Lat.} 1. To make one thing the measure of another ; to estimate the relative goodness or badness. [Example: "No man can think it grievous who considers the pleasure and sweetness of love, and the glorious victory of overcoming evil with good ; and then compares these with the restless torment, and perpetual tumults, of a malicious and revengeful spirit."] Tillotson. 2. To get ; to procure ; to obtain. Spenser.

It isn't as though Johnson had no interest in the different meanings that may arise from combining a verb with different prepositions. For example, his 1756 dictionary's entry for come includes 39 separate numbered definitions for combinations of come and a following preposition or adverb (come about, come at, come by, come in, come in for, come in to, and so on). But he says nothing about compare to and compare with.

In fact, rather strikingly, Johnson doesn't mention the "liken" sense of compare at all, and neither do subsequent editions of his dictionary through at least 1778. Webster does refer to it in his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806), but not with any distinction in preposition use:

Compare, v. t. to liken, examin to find agreement or disagreement ; in the sense of procure ob[solete]

In any event, Webster wasn't the first lexicographer to refer to the "liken" sense of compare. John Kersey, Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum: or, A General English Dictionary (1708) has this:

To Compare, to examine one thing by another, to liken.

To similar effect, a century later, William Perry's revision of Johnson's dictionary, titled The Synonymous, Etymological, and Pronouncing English Dictionary (1805), has this entry:

COMPARE, (Lat comparo) to make one thing the measure of another, to estimate the relative goodness or badness, or other qualities, of any one thing, by observing how it differs from something else, to liken, resemble, confer (Boyle), confront (Addison) ; to parallel, to paragon ; with to and with.

The first dictionary to notes explicitly that compare may be used with to and with, however, may be John Ash, The New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language (1775), which has this:

COMPARE (v. t. from the Lat. con with, and paro to make) To make one thing the measure of another ; with to and with : as, "He compared anger to fire," "He compares the translation with the original."

But neither Ash nor Perry argues that there is properly no overlap in usage between compare to and compare with.

Returning to Noah Webster, it appears that his dictionary was not the first to cite the example from Bacon either, nor was it the first to make a serious attempt to distinguish between the meanings of compare to and compare with. In H.J. Todd's edition of Johnson's Dictionary (1818), we find the Bacon quotation, a definition devoted to coverage of the "liken" sense of compare, and separate meanings that properly take to and with:

To COMPARE. v. a. {comparo, Lat.}

1. To make one thing the measure of another ; to estimate the relative goodness or badness, or other qualities of any one thing, by observing how it differs from something else. [Examples omitted.]

2. It may be observed, that when the comparison intends only similitude or illustration by likeness, we use to before the thing brought for illustration ; as, he compared anger to a fire. [Bacon example omitted.]

3. When two persons or things are compared, to discover their relative proportion of any quality, with is used before the thing used as a measure. [Examples omitted.]

So the chronology looks like this:

1708 Kersey's Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum records the “examine one thing by another” (effectively, "examine side by side") and "liken" meanings of compare.

1775 Ash’s New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language observes that compare commonly appears with the prepositions with and to.

1818 Todd's revision of Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language links the "examine side by side" sense of the verb to compare with and the "liken" sense of the verb to compare to.

1828 Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language spreads the rule outlined by Todd to North America.

Noah Webster was a master purloiner—an inveterate user (without acknowledgment) of other lexicographers’ wordings and opinions when he deemed them sufficiently accurate to be worth appropriating. In the case of the rule governing compared to and compared with, credit (or responsibility) for identifying the rule that subsequently appeared in Webster’s 1828 dictionary goes to H.J. Todd, whose revision of Johnson’s dictionary appeared ten years earlier and who may owe a debt to John Ash and William Perry for having emphasized the association of compare with with and to in dictionaries that appeared earlier still. Todd’s 1818 dictionary may not be the original source either, but it is the earliest source that my research uncovered.

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