False Comparisons

It's that time of year again - the smell of the SAT and ACT is in the air!

These tests will assess many areas of knowledge, but one of the more difficult concepts to appear in the grammar section (part of the SAT's "Writing" section and part of the ACT's "English" section) is false comparison.

Here is what false comparison looks like:

Emily prefers the symphonies of Beethoven to Brahms.

What is being compared: Beethoven's symphonies to Brahms the person.  What should be compared instead: Beethoven's symphonies to Brahms's symphonies.  (Context leads us to this conclusion, as it would be incredibly unlikely that the author was intentionally stating Emily's preference for music over the personality of a deceased composer...)

Thus: Emily prefers the symphonies of Beethoven to those of Brahms.


If that concept makes sense, take a look at this practice SAT question from the Error ID section of the test:

The sculptor Rodin often departed from the traditional styles in his creations; unlike other sculptors, his creations made obvious the materials from which they were built.  No error

The underlined words are the five choices available - four possible errors and the choice of no error.  Can you spot a faulty comparison?  Rodin's "creations" are being contrasted with "other sculptors".  Since his creations are not a possible choice for the error, you would select "other sculptors" as the error.  This error might be fixed by writing, "...unlike the work of other sculptors, his creations..."

Here is another:

In many offices, the use of halogen light bulbs is more popular than fluorescent bulbs, even though fluorescent bulbs save more energy than halogen bulbs.  No error

This one is even more subtle than the last.  Did you spot that "fluorescent bulbs" are being compared to the "use of halogen bulbs"?  This is enough to make "fluorescent bulbs" an error, and thus the correct choice for this Error ID question.

Be on the lookout for the language of comparison:

like, unlike, more than, less than, better, worse, more, less, similarly, in contrast

When you see it, ask yourself what is being compared or contrasted in the sentence.  Is the sentence carefully constructed to compare people to people and actions to actions? Is art compared to art and one place to another place?  If not, you may have a false comparison  on your hands.