pageok
pageok
pageok
Apples and Oranges:

A recent Corner post quotes an e-mail that says that comparing Bush's and Churchill's rhetoric "is [comparing] apples and oranges," presumably meaning "comparing two things that can't properly be compared."

But (as I noted before), we compare apples and oranges all the time! We compare them by price, by how much we like the taste, by likely sweetness and ripeness, by how well they'll go in a tasty fruit cocktail, and so on. In fact, every time we go to the store and buy apples rather than oranges — or vice versa — we are necessarily (if implicitly) comparing apples and oranges. You too have compared apples and oranges, and have been quite right to do so.

Seems to me that the phrase should instead reflect two items that really are radically dissimilar — say, "comparing apples and democracy," or "comparing oranges and the multiplication table." Now those comparisons really would be hard to conduct.

UPDATE: Reader Q the Enchanter says he often uses "apples and orangutans."

Owen Hutchins (mail):
But we wouldn't say an apple isn't a good apple because it isn't orange.
12.1.2005 6:21pm
Scott Moss (mail) (www):
There's some saying -- I can't remember who said it, and I'm probably about to mangle it -- that comparing X to Y is "like asking whether this string is longer than that rock is hard."
12.1.2005 6:26pm
SB (www):
Prof. Volokh, I'm sure you know darned well C++ will gladly let you conduct these comparisons if you just overload the right operators, so they must be valid!
12.1.2005 6:39pm
Igglephan:
Professor V: You write, " In fact, every time we go to the store and buy apples rather than oranges -- or vice versa -- we are necessarily (if implicitly) comparing apples and oranges." Is this a rigorous market definition for antitrust purposes? I wouldn't be surprised if some economist studied the effect of a 5% increase in price of one or the other, in either a natural experiment or a laboratory context.
12.1.2005 6:51pm
Bub (mail):
That's a silly observation and worse, not particularly useful. We are talking about English idiom here--it isn't meant to be taken literally and it won't necessarily be logical. Slow day at the blog Professor Volokh?
12.1.2005 7:09pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Er, it was a joke. Of course idioms aren't supposed to be logical. Just sometimes some people find it funny, in an absurdist way, to take an idiom at face value and play out the consequences. Sorry you weren't one of them, Bub, but maybe you might keep in mind that when otherwise sensible people (I hope I fall in that category) make "not particularly useful" "silly observation[s]," they're not being entirely serious.
12.1.2005 7:16pm
Sisyphus:
Owen is right, above, it seems to me. A more complete version of the cliche should be "You cannot fairly compare the qualities of a member of the set of apples against the qualities of a member of the set of oranges within the qualities of either set." That seems to better express what people are saying when they say, "you can't compare apples and oranges." Because even the Platonic Ideal of an apple will not be a very good orange, and vice versa.
12.1.2005 7:16pm
Splunge (mail):
Seems to me that the phrase should instead reflect two items that really are radically dissimilar -- say, "comparing apples and democracy," or "comparing oranges and the multiplication table." Now those comparisons really would be hard to conduct.

Nonsense. We could compare them by their alphabetic ordering, or number of syllables, or number of synonyms, or the approximate age at which children learn the word or the concept, or the century at which the word passed into English, et cetera and so forth.

Is it silly to point out that changing the axis of measurement rescales differences? Er, yes.
12.1.2005 7:18pm
Dave:
Bub notwithstanding, the general consensus seems to be in favor of posts like this one. There was an overwhelmingly positive response when Doc Volokh asked about this a few months ago.
12.1.2005 7:22pm
Paul Sherman:
Maybe it should be, "That's evaluating an apple based on an orange's attributes."
12.1.2005 7:25pm
gravytop (mail) (www):
Dissimilarity is relative to context. The earlier poster makes the point, and I think he's right, that if you criticize fruit A for being too irregularly shaped, too green in color, to count as a high-quality example of fruit B, you might rightly be accused of improperly comparing apples and oranges.

Even comparing oranges and the multiplication table makes sense in an easily imagined context. Which was first used by humans, etc. There is no shortage of popular science or history books which make comparisons or draw connections between seemingly unconnected things. Guns, Germs, etc.

A more appropriate expression would be: judging apples by the standards of oranges. Or prize bulls. It would be ludicrous to find fault with an apple because its testicles werre found wanting.

There's a famous quote of uncertain attribution —"writing about music is like dancing about architecture." When I first read it at age 18 I thought it was hilarious and deeply true. I still think it's kind of funny, but the idea of dancing about architecture no longer seems ridiculous.
12.1.2005 7:31pm
Kim Scarborough (mail) (www):
Eugene: Don't listen to Bub. One of the things I most like about your blog is when you write about stuff like that.

By the way, The Annals of Improbable Research did a scientific study on this, concluding that apples and oranges can, indeed, be compared. They do a lot of important work (which will annoy Bub because he probably wouldn't think it was "useful); they also had a report that demonstrated that Kansas is flatter than a pancake.
12.1.2005 7:32pm
Bub (mail):
Eugene Volokh,

I definitely put you in the "sensible people" category. On a different day I would have lurked as usual. I guess today I'm not in my own plate.

Dave,

I'm proud to be an outlier.
12.1.2005 7:37pm
gravytop (mail) (www):
Splunge, you're conflating apples and oranges with the words "apples" and "oranges." Therer is obviously no comparison between an orange and the word "orange."
12.1.2005 7:38pm
Bub (mail):
Kim Scarborough,

I submit that "important work" is by definition "useful." If the group you cite does, in fact, do important work, then I'm sure it wouldn't annoy me. To be honest, I find it strange that you would suggest otherwise. Or is your point that I would find annoying a study showing Kansas is flatter than a pancake? If so, may I suggest that you make that part of your sentence the antecedent to your comment in parenthesis?
12.1.2005 7:47pm
JB:
Or, as I used to think it was, "comparing apples and orange juice." Which would be radically dissimilar enough.
12.1.2005 8:26pm
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
I often use "apples and orangutans." Hope that helps.
12.1.2005 9:11pm
Jimbino (mail):
And what about "head over heels in love"?
12.1.2005 9:21pm
PersonFromPorlock:
Perhaps originally it was "horse apples and oranges?"
12.1.2005 10:20pm
RBG (mail):
Is it just me, or is the author's usage just out of whack here? (I don't mean to be pedantic; I value to proper and accurate use of words.) This idiom indicates a category mistake, for example, comparing an opera to a painting, or at least (if we're stuck in the world of oration), a high school oral book report to a wartime speech by the nation's president. Where, precisely, is the category mistake in comparing a wartime speech by one country's leader with one by another (they're even both in English, for heaven's sake)? Even if Bush's speech absolutely sucks by comparison with Churchill's (which seems to be the author's point), we can know that precisely because we're comparing apples with apples. No?
12.1.2005 11:24pm
Jeremy Pierce (mail) (www):
Nonsense. We could compare them by their alphabetic ordering, or number of syllables, or number of synonyms, or the approximate age at which children learn the word or the concept, or the century at which the word passed into English, et cetera and so forth.

We could compare the word 'apples' with the phrase 'multiplication tables' by counting syllables or synonyms, but that's not comparing apples with multiplication tables. Apples aren't made out of syllables. They're made out of organic matter.

There are, of course, many ways to compare apples with multiplication tables. Apples are edible ruits, and multiplication tables aren't edible or fruit. Multiplication tables are abstract objects or visual representations thereof. Apples are physical objects. You can write out a multiplication table, but you have to wait until an apple grows on a tree or acquire one from someone who already has one after waiting for it to grow.
12.1.2005 11:35pm
quihana:
I think it's proverbially apples and oranges because they are similar enough to be mistaken for things which can or should be compared, but on reflection are not useful reciprocal standards.
12.2.2005 12:12am
PDQ:
"Comparing Jesus Christ and bubblegum"
12.2.2005 12:50am
Scipio (mail) (www):
One of my favorite idioms describes people as having fallen ass over teakettle, precisely because it makes no sense. Perhaps the value of an idiom varies in inverse proportion to its logical coherence.
12.2.2005 9:56am
rico:
Common usage at my company: "Apples and oranges" vs. "Apples and freight trains". The first option is offered as "good enough", when the second option is the only alternative.
12.2.2005 11:31am
splunge (mail):
Perhaps it's the more visual sort of person who says "like comparing apples and oranges" and the more verbal who says "as different as chalk and cheese", since the superficial similarities in the former are geometric, and in the latter phonic. Id est, I would not be surprised if one's choice of idiom revealed idiosyncrasies in one's thought.
12.2.2005 12:13pm
TFox (mail):
My favorite comparison of apples and oranges is by FTIR, and appeared here:
Sandford JA J Irrep Res 1995.
12.2.2005 5:32pm
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
Apples and volcanoes, is the way I heard it about 10 years ago. Golden apples of the sun - Homer. Dollars to donuts.. mmm, donuts! - Homer. Apples and oranges are similar and different. Empirical conclusions often turn on the degree of specificity involved.
12.2.2005 11:20pm
Joe - ASPCA (mail):
Apples and orangutans? But don't we (implicitly, at least) compare these every time we're hungry and reach for an apple instead of an orangutan? One's sweet and juicy, but the other's just more filling.
12.4.2005 3:11am
nyejm (mail) (www):
i know i'm late on this, but Scott Sandford at NASA actually did compare apples and oranges in this study.
12.5.2005 1:39pm