Feature diagrams (FDs) are a family of popular modelling languages, mainly used for managing variability in software product lines. FDs were first introduced by Kang et al. as part of the feature-oriented domain analysis (FODA) method back in 1990. Since then, various extensions of FODA FDs were devised to compensate for purported ambiguity and lack of precision and expressiveness. Recently, the authors surveyed these notations and provided them with a generic formal syntax and semantics, called free feature diagrams (FFDs). The authors also started investigating the comparative semantics of FFD with respect to other recent formalisations of FD languages. Those results were targeted at improving the quality of FD languages and making the comparison between them more objective. The previous results are recalled in a self-contained, better illustrated and better motivated fashion. Most importantly, a general method is presented for comparative semantics of FDs grounded in Harel and Rumpe's guidelines for defining formal visual languages and in Krogstie et al.'s semiotic quality framework. This method being actually applicable to other visual languages, FDs are also used as a language (re)engineering exemplar throughout the paper. © 2008 The Institution of Engineering and Technology.