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Making Comparisons

How to make comparisons in academic writing

In our Editing Tips series, we have already dealt with active and passive voice, explaining how to identify and avoid overusing the passive voice. In our next section, we will discuss the wandering "only". This article explains what our editors call phantom or one-sided comparisons.

Don't play the guessing game when making comparisons

Consider the sentence, "Tom is taller." Some questions immediately come to mind. Taller than a tree? Taller than he was when he was six? Taller than Bob?

They all boil down to the following question: "Taller than what?" He can't just be taller; he has to be taller than something else, and you should not hide it or make your readers guess what it is.

Any time you make a comparison (e.g., more, less, broader, deeper, wider, better, higher, or lower), you must tell your readers the two things you're comparing (i.e., what the "something else" is) if you want them to fully understand your meaning.

In very few cases, this might be obvious from the context. However, because you can never be sure of how it appears from the reader's perspective, it's always best to explicitly state to what you are making the comparison. As the author, you already know what you mean, but you need to consider the reader's viewpoint.

Sometimes, and only sometimes, your meaning may be apparent from the syntax, but don't take a chance and make your readers guess.

It's all relative, right? Wrong!

Perhaps the most frequently seen example of this issue is the improper use of the terms "relative" and "relatively." "Relatively" means "compared to something else" (e.g., "relatively high" means "higher than, or high compared to, something else"), but almost never does the author tell his or her readers what the something else is.

The technically correct construction is, "Relatively higher than xyz" or "High relative to xyz," both of which are cumbersome and much worse than the simple, "Higher than xyz" or "High compared to xyz." Often, it appears that "relative" is sort of thrown in to make the paper sound a bit more formal or intelligent, but it usually comes across simply as pompous.

Real examples of phantom comparisons

1. "Health communication is considered a relatively new communication subfield."

What is this subfield newer than? Or, to what degree is it "new"? It could be new relative to the discovery of the New World or new relative to the iPhone. We corrected this phantom comparison by simply deleting the word "relatively," making the sentence easily understandable. The author also could have amended the sentence by telling the readers to what the subfield's newness was being compared.

2. "African-American patients are less satisfied when they deal with white physicians."

Here, our editor was left guessing at the author's intended meaning. Less satisfied than other types of patients who deal with white physicians? Or less satisfied than African-American patients are when they deal with African-American physicians? The author needed to answer these questions to clarify his or her meaning for his readers.

3. "Penetrating injuries to the brain are relatively rare because the adult calvarium generally constitutes a sufficient barrier."

Relative to other types of brain injuries? Or relative to penetrating injuries to other organs? Again, our editor was left to guess both of these answers, as well as the author's meaning.

4. "This study examines these issues in more detail."

More detail than what? More detail than anyone has examined them to this point? In more detail than the study examines other issues?

5. "Doctors must be able to relate to patients in a way that helps the patients feel more relaxed and at ease."

More relaxed and at ease than what? Than they are at the dentist? Than they are at home? Than the last patient was? We have no good idea what the author means. How about simply, "Doctors must be able to relate to patients in a way that helps the patients feel relaxed and at ease"?

These examples raise two good points

1. Be sure that you even need a comparison in the first place before putting one in your writing. Often the comparison is unnecessary and irrelevant. If it is needed, however, be sure to explicitly tell your readers the two things you're comparing; don't make them guess.

2. You might argue that, even without knowing to what this author was comparing the desired levels of relaxation and ease, readers probably know what was meant. Of course, this is true. However, academic and professional papers are no place for the common euphemisms, slang, and sloppiness that color and punctuate every day, informal speech.

Kick phantom comparisons to the curb

Keep the above points in mind as you consider comparisons and your writing will become tight and clear.


Image source: Dietmar Becker/