Avoiding Faulty Comparisons

If your writing looks professional, so do you.

  • Nancy Tuten

    14 March 2021

    Avoiding Faulty Comparisons

    A faulty comparison is among a host of other issues that can affect the clarity of our writing: elsewhere in this archive, for example, we talk about avoiding vague pronoun references (in particular the vague which) and about using transitions effectively to improve logic and clarity.

    If we want our writing to be logical, clear, and precise, we must be on the lookout for five common mistakes, each of which results in a faulty comparison:

    Mixing Apples and Oranges

    We all know that when we’re trying to make a comparison, we can’t compare “apples to oranges,” and yet often that is exactly what we do. Consider this example:

          The weather this summer is as bad as last year.

    We can’t logically compare weather in a particular season to a year. We might try these constructions instead:

    • The weather this summer is as bad as last summer’s [weather]. OR
    • The weather this summer is as bad as it was last summer.

    Here is another example:

    • Marcia’s salary after ten years and four raises still fell behind Eliot.

    We can’t logically compare a salary to a person. We might try this construction instead:

    • Marcia’s salary after ten years and four raises still fell behind Eliot’s [salary].

    Using Superlatives with Pairs

    We cannot use superlatives—those modifiers that are preceded by most or end in -est (e.g., smartest, most beautiful, wittiest, most enjoyable)—when comparing only two things.

    Consider this example:

    • Our oldest daughter is taller than our youngest.

    That statement is logical if we have three or more daughters, but if we have only two, then we should render the sentence thus:

    • Our older daughter is taller than our younger.

    Omitting the Second As

    In the construction “as XX as, if not XXer than,” writers and speakers often omit the second as, an omission that results in a sentence fragment:

    • She is as smart [if not smarter than] Kerry.

    Once we isolate the adverb clause “if not smarter than,” we see that what is left is not a complete thought: “She is as smart Kerry.”  What we want to say instead is this:

    • She is as smart as if not smarter than Kerry.

    Omitting the Word Other 

    Something or someone can be the best of a group of things/people or it can be better than any other thing/person. But we can’t say simply that it is better than any thing/person because it can’t be better than itself. Consider this example:

    • The board chair’s annual report was more encouraging than any annual report we have heard in the past five years.

    If it is “more encouraging than any report,” then it is more encouraging than itself, a statement that is illogical. We should, instead, render it thus:

    • The board chair’s annual report was more encouraging than any other annual report we have heard in the past five years.

    Making Ambiguous Comparisons

    Sometimes we end up with a faulty comparison because we forgot to tell the reader/listener the point of comparison. Consider this example:

    • The office party band was more talented.

    The reader is left to wonder . . .

    • Was it more talented than the band at the last office party?
    • Was it more talented than any other band anywhere?
    • Was it more talented than a mournful pasture full of cold and hungry cattle?

    Here is another example:

    • The consultant helped the chief executive officer more than the chief financial officer.

    We don’t know which of these meanings is intended:

    • Did the consultant help the CEO more than the consultant helped the CFO?
    • Did the consultant help the CEO more than the CFO helped the CEO?

    TEST YOURSELF

    Identify and correct the faulty comparisons in the following sentences:

    1. A’ja Wilson scored more points in tonight’s basketball game.
    2. The movie we watched last night was as long if not longer than the one we watched tonight.
    3. The March 2021 news about the COVID vaccination rollout was more encouraging than any news we had heard since the pandemic began.
    4. Margaret helped Seth with the marketing campaign more than Walter.
    5. Both people hired in the IT department are highly qualified and have extensive backgrounds, but everyone realized quickly that Beatrice Quinn was the smartest one.
    6. Lauren’s meeting notes were confusing and not nearly as organized as Janet.

    ANSWERS

    1. A’ja Wilson scored more points in tonight’s basketball game than she scored in last night’s game. OR . . . than Jane scored. OR . . . than she had ever scored before.  [Answers will vary, but the corrected sentence should explain the point of comparison: more points than when/what/who?]
    2. The movie we watched last night was as long as if not longer than the one we watched tonight.
    3. The March 2021 news about the COVID vaccination rollout was more encouraging than any other news we had heard since the pandemic began.
    4. Margaret helped Seth with the marketing campaign more than she helped Walter. OR . . . more than Walter helped Seth.
    5. Both people hired in the IT department are highly qualified and have extensive backgrounds, but everyone realized quickly that Beatrice Quinn was the smarter one.
    6. Lauren’s meeting notes were confusing and not nearly as organized as Janet’s.  OR . . . Janet’s notes.

    If you enjoyed this lesson, check out my newest online course, “Logic, Clarity, and Precision,” the second of a three-part self-paced series of courses called Pro Tips for Professional Writers. (See also part one, “Punctuation.”) Subscribe to the Get It Write newsletter for coupon codes that reduce the cost of these courses, and ask the professional development team at your workplace to consider purchasing bundles of course access codes for you and your colleagues. The more they purchase, the lower the per-course price becomes. Ask me for more information: ntuten@getitwriteonline.com.

    ©Get It Write 2021

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