Contrast Composition and Rhetoric

Contrast of apples and oranges
Still Life With Apples and Oranges by Paul Cézanne. Buyenlarge/Getty Images

In composition, contrast is a rhetorical strategy and method of organization in which a writer identifies the differences between two people, places, ideas, or things.

On the sentence level, one type of contrast is antithesis. In paragraphs and essays, contrast is generally considered an aspect of comparison.

Words and phrases that often signal a contrast include but, however, yet, in contrast, instead, unlike, nevertheless, and on the contrary.

Examples and Observations

  • "The TV also brought into my life two appealing characters named Laurel and Hardy, whom I found clever and gentle, in contrast to the Three Stooges, who were blatant and violent."
    (Steven Martin, Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life. Scribner, 2007)
  • "Unlike most babies, Stuart could walk as soon as he was born."
    (E.B. White, Stuart Little. Harper, 1945)
  • "What a distressing contrast there is between the radiant intelligence of the child and the feeble mentality of the average adult."
    (Sigmund Freud)
  • "Books say: she did this because. Life says: she did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren't."
    (Julian Barnes, Flaubert's Parrot: A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. Jonathan Cape, 1984
  • "I expected a grandmother, wiping her hands on a gingham apron, to come from the kitchen. Instead I got Brenda. Young, sullen, pink uniform, bottlecaps for eyes, handling her pad the way a cop does his citation book. The menu said all breakfasts came with grits, toast, and preserves. I ordered a breakfast of two eggs over easy. 'Is that all you want?'"
    (William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways, 1982
  • "On the one hand, there is the world of the printed word with its emphasis on logic, sequence, history, exposition, objectivity, detachment, and discipline. On the other there is the world of television with its emphasis on imagery, narrative, presentness, simultaneity, intimacy, immediate gratification, and quick emotional response."
    (Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992
  • "You know, there's a lot of difference between a crazy quilt and a patchwork quilt. A patchwork quilt is exactly what the name implies--a quilt made of patches. A crazy quilt, on the other hand, only looks crazy. It is not 'patched'; it is planned. A patchwork quilt would perhaps be a good metaphor for capitalism; a crazy quilt is perhaps a metaphor for socialism."
    (Alice Walker, interviewed by Claudia Tate. The World Has Changed: Conversations With Alice Walker, ed. by Rudolph P. Byrd. New Press, 2010
  • "There are about four times in a man's life, or a woman's, too, for that matter, when unexpectedly, from out of the darkness, the blazing carbon lamp, the cosmic searchlight of Truth shines full upon them. It is how we react to those moments that forever seals our fate. One crowd simply puts on its sunglasses, lights another cigar, and heads for the nearest plush French restaurant in the jazziest section of town, sits down and orders a drink, and ignores the whole thing. While we, the Doomed, caught in the brilliant glare of illumination, see ourselves inescapably for what we are, and from that day on sulk in the weeds, hoping no one else will spot us."
    (Jean Shepherd, "The Endless Streetcar Ride," 1966
  • "The word 'value,' it is to be observed, has two different meanings, and sometimes expresses the utility of some particular object, and sometimes the power of purchasing other goods which the possession of that object conveys. The one may be called 'value in use'; the other, 'value in exchange.' The things which have the greatest value in use have frequently little or no value in exchange; and, on the contrary, those which have the greatest value in exchange have frequently little or no value in use. Nothing is more useful than water; but it will purchase scarce anything; scarce anything can be had in exchange for it. A diamond, on the contrary, has scarce any value in use, but a very great quantity of goods may frequently be had in exchange for it."
    (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776

Two Ways of Organizing Contrasts

  • "One of the major advantages of using comparison/contrast to explain ideas is that it can lend itself quite naturally to two easy-to-arrange and easy-to-follow patterns of organization. In the point-by-point method, writers address a series of characteristics or features shared by the two subjects; they compare or contrast the two subjects on one point, then move on to the next point. . . . In the subject by subject method, one subject is thoroughly discussed before the writer moves on to the second. You can see a good example of the subject-by-subject method in the essay by Mark Twain. For example, Twain first describes the beautiful and poetic Mississippi before going on to the dangerous Mississippi." (Santi V. Buscemi and Charlotte Smith, 75 Readings Plus, 8th ed. McGraw-Hill, 2007)

Point-By-Point Contrasts (Alternating Pattern)

MI5 and MI6 in Britain

  • "The conflicting attitudes toward [double-agent Kim] Philby between the sister services of British intelligence would expose a cultural fault line that predated this crisis, long outlasted it, and persist today. MI5 and MI6--the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service, broadly equivalent to the FBI and CIA--overlapped in many respects, but were fundamentally dissimilar in outlook. MI5 tended to recruit former police officers and soldiers, men who sometimes spoke with regional accents, and frequently did not know, or care about, the right order to use the cutlery at dinner. They enforced the law and defended the realm, caught spies and prosecuted them. MI6 was more public school and Oxbridge; its accent more refined, its tailoring better. Its agents and officers frequently broke the laws of other countries in pursuit of secrets, and did so with a certain swagger. MI6 was White's; MI5 was the Rotary Club. MI6 was upper-middle class (and sometimes aristocratic); MI5 was middle class (and sometimes working class). In the minute gradations of social stratification that meant so much in Britain, MI5 was 'below the salt,' a little common, and MI6 was gentlemanly, elitist and old school tie. MI5 were hunters; MI6 were gatherers. Philby's patronising dismissal of Dick White as 'nondescript' precisely reflected MI6's attitude to its sister service: White, as his biographer puts it, was 'pure trade,' whereas Philby was 'establishment.' MI5 looked up at MI6 with resentment; MI6 looked down with a small but ill-hidden sneer. The looming battle over Philby was yet another skirmish in Britain's never-ending, hard-fought, and entirely ludicrous class war." (Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends. Bloomsbury, 2014)

Lenin and Gladstone

  • "[Vladimir] Lenin, with whom I had a long conversation in Moscow in 1920, was, superficially, very unlike [William] Gladstone, and yet, allowing for the difference of time and place and creed, the two men had much in common. To begin with the differences: Lenin was cruel, which Gladstone was not; Lenin had no respect for tradition, whereas Gladstone had a great deal; Lenin considered all means legitimate for securing the victory of his party, whereas for Gladstone politics was a game with certain rules that must be observed. All these differences, to my mind, are to the advantage of Gladstone, and accordingly Gladstone on the whole had beneficent effects, while Lenin's effects were disastrous." (Bertrand Russell, "Eminent Men I Have Known." Unpopular Essays, 1950)

Subject-by-Subject Contrast (Block Pattern)

  • "Sloppy people can’t bear to part with anything. They give loving attention to every detail. When sloppy people say they’re going to tackle the surface of a desk, they really mean it. Not a paper will go unturned; not a rubber band will go unboxed. Four hours or two weeks into the excavation, the desk looks exactly the same, primarily because the sloppy person is meticulously creating new piles of papers with new headings and scrupulously stopping to read all the old book catalogs before he throws them away. A neat person would just bulldoze the desk.
  • "Neat people are bums and clods at heart. They have cavalier attitudes toward possessions, including family heirlooms. Everything is just another dust-catcher to them. If anything collects dust, it’s got to go and that’s that. Neat people will toy with the idea of throwing the children out of the house just to cut down on the clutter.
  • "Neat people don’t care about process. They like results. What they want to do is get the whole thing over with so they can sit down and watch the rasslin’ on TV. Neat people operate on two unvarying principles: Never handle any item twice, and throw everything away." (Suzanne Britt, "Neat People vs. Sloppy People." Show and Tell. Morning Owl Press, 1983)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Contrast Composition and Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Contrast Composition and Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Contrast Composition and Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).