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Shall I compare thee … to or with?


Should you compare something with or to something else?

You can do either, and the difference between the  two is subtle but distinct: to compare A to B is to liken the two; to compare A with B is to assess their similarities and differences.

As Salvador Dali quipped, “The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot.” Clearly, comparing a lass’s cheeks to a rose is to flatter her, however unoriginal the compliment might appear to be; he surely means not to weigh the similarities and differences between the flush of feminine beauty and a clutch of petals.

The Marquis De Sade drew a provocative comparison: “Are not laws dangerous which inhibit the passions? Compare the centuries of anarchy with those of the strongest legalism in any country you like and you will see that it is only when the laws are silent that the greatest actions appear.” The Marquis is pointing to the very difference between the prevalence and absence of law, noting the positive consequences of the latter. There is no likening here.

William Shakespeare, in perhaps his most famous love sonnet, asks whether he should liken the object of his desire to the idyll of a summer’s day – only to go on to question whether the similarity is true. It is only in the deepening of his thoughts, as he compares his lover’s beauty with summer’s ephemeral charms, that he comes to favor the one for whom he has penned his piece.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate;
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

–William Shakespeare