Wednesday, August 06, 2008

On Comparing Apples and Oranges

People often use the phrase "apples and oranges" or "comparing apples and oranges" to describe an inadequate or invalid comparison. For example, "You can't compare the value of a pitcher to the value of a position player. It's apples and oranges." Or, "The circumstances surrounding our continued presence in Iraq are entirely different than those surrounding the rebuilding of Germany after World War II. Comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges."

But I don't think the idiom works. Apples and oranges are easy to compare. Consider:

  • Apples and oranges are both fruits.

  • Apples and oranges are roughly the same size.

  • Both apples and oranges grow on trees.

  • Both fruits are common in children's snacks and lunches, often in wedge form.

  • Both are common in fruit salads and in the types of salads only served at picnics and pitch-ins.

I could go on. The point is that apples and oranges are similar in form and function and that the idiom, as it is commonly used, makes no sense. A more apt expression would be, "like comparing apples and tomatoes." Apples and tomatoes look similar on the surface (same color and size) but are substantially different: Apples grow on trees, tomatoes on vines; one would never put applesauce on spaghetti; one would never dip a tomato in caramel and eat it on a stick.

As it were, I'm not the first (or even the fourteen thousand, eight hundred sixty-first) person to object to the apples and oranges analogy. Wikipedia has a summary.


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