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What Does "Apples for Apples" Mean?

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  • Written By: A. Leverkuhn
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 08 November 2016
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The English idiom “apples for apples” is used for comparing two like things. English speakers and writers may also use the alternate phrasing “apples to apples." The common phrase is an easy way to describe “like units” of consistency in a traded commodity or other variable.

In an opposite idiom, English speakers may also refer to something being “apples and oranges.” Here, the opposite meaning applies. When something is “apples and oranges,” it means that an incorrect comparison has been made. For example, a car salesman might say “you can’t compare this car to last year’s model. It’s apples and oranges in terms of value.” Here, the speaker is saying the two vehicles are not comparable, which can be a significant statement in negotiations since a major part of auto valuation involves comparing like vehicles.

The phrase “apples for apples” has sparked some popular word games in English speaking communities that have to do with matching words or ideas. The phrase may also be useful in teaching, where math or engineering teachers might use it to describe problems involving changing elements into like units. A teacher might say “if you change x to terms of z, and multiply it by the other side of the equation, which is already in terms of z, you will have apples for apples.” Like units are critically important to resolving many complex equations.

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In general, the phrase “apples for apples” reflects the importance of this fruit as a commodity throughout the history of the English language. The apple has been associated with life and vitality in many English speaking cultures. Besides its place in the front of the alphabet, which results in its use in early education, the apple is also an effective “general commodity” that is useful in describing generic trades or value related situations.

Beyond just describing values for tangible objects, the phrase, “apples for apples,” can also be used in more abstract ways. For example, a speaker might say, in reference to two municipal budgets proposed in the same year, that the two are “apples to apples” and compare them as like units. Even when the object in question does not include value, such as in reference to a municipal policy, instead of a budget, the phrase can still be used to compare the two ideas. If the speaker says that two municipal policies are “apples to apples,” he or she is probably trying to say that both policies have similar aims and objectives, or at the very least do not contradict one another.

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