Rhetoric and Composition/Argument

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What is An Argument?[edit]

When you hear the word "argument," what do you think of? Maybe you think of a shouting match or a fist fight? Well, when instructors use the word "argument," they're typically thinking about something else. What they're actually referring to is a a position supported by the analysis that preceded its conception, not necessarily defending against antagonism.

More to the point, they're talking about defending a certain point of view through writing or speech. Usually called a "claim" or a "thesis," this point of view is concerned with an issue that doesn't have a clear right or wrong answer (e.g., four and two make six). Also, this argument should not only be concerned with personal opinion (e.g., I really like carrots). Instead, an argument might tackle issues like abortion, capital punishment, stem cell research, or gun control. However, what distinguishes an argument from a descriptive essay or "report" is that the argument must take a stance; if you're merely summarizing "both sides" of an issue or pointing out the "pros and cons," you're not really writing an argument. "Stricter gun control laws will likely result in a decrease in gun-related violence" is an argument. Note that people can and will disagree with this argument, which is precisely why so many instructors find this type of assignment so useful -- they make you think!

Academic arguments usually "articulate an opinion." This opinion is always carefully defended with good reasoning and supported by plenty of research. Research? Yes, research! Indeed, part of learning to write effective arguments is finding reliable sources(or other documents) that lend credibility to your position. It's not enough to say "capital punishment is wrong because that's the way I feel."


Instead, you need to adequately support your claim by finding:

  • facts
  • statistics
  • quotations from recognized authorities, and
  • other types of evidence

You won't always win, and that's fine. The goal of an argument is simply to:

  • make a claim
  • support your claim with the most credible reasoning and evidence you can muster
  • hope that the reader will at least understand your position
  • hope that your claim is taken seriously

If you defend your argument's position with good reasoning and evidence, you should earn a high grade, even if your instructor personally disagrees with the views you are defending.


We will be covering the basic format of how to structure an argument. This includes the general written argument structure, and the Position and Proposal variations of that basic form. If you want to make a claim about a particular (usually controversial) issue, you can use the Position argument form. Alternately, if you would like to offer a solution to a particular situation that you see as problematic, such as the rising cost of education, you can get your idea across using a Proposal argument. By adapting one of these three methods, you will be well on the way to making your point. The great thing about the argument structure is its amazingly versatility. Once you become familiar with this basic structure of the argumentative essay, you will be able to clearly argue about almost anything!

Basic Argument Essay Structure[edit]

Introduction[edit]

The first paragraph of your argument is used to introduce your topic and the issues surrounding it. This needs to be in clear, easily understandable language. Your readers need to know what you're writing about before they can decide if they believe you or not.

Once you have introduced your general subject, it's time to state your claim. Your claim will serve as the thesis for your essay. Make sure that you use clear and precise language. Your reader needs to understand exactly where you stand on the issue. The clarity of your claim affects your readers' understanding of your views. Also, it's a good idea to highlight what you plan to cover. Highlights allow your reader to know what direction you will be taking with your argument.

You can also mention the points or arguments in support of your claim, which you will be further discussing in the body. This part comes at the end of the thesis and can be named as the guide. The guide is a useful tool for you as well as the readers. It is useful for you, because this way you will be more organized. In addition, your audience will have a clear cut idea as to what will be discussed in the body.

Body[edit]

Background Information[edit]

Once your position is stated you should establish your credibility. There are two sides to every argument. This means not everyone will agree with your viewpoint. So try to form a common ground with the audience. Think about who may be undecided or opposed to your viewpoint. Take the audience's age, education, values, gender, culture, ethnicity, and all other variables into consideration as you introduce your topic. These variables will affect your word choice, and your audience may be more likely to listen to your argument with an open mind if you do.

Developing Your Argument[edit]

Back up your thesis with logical and persuasive arguments. During your pre-writing phase, outline the main points you might use to support your claim, and decide which are the strongest and most logical. Eliminate those which are based on emotion rather than fact. Your corroborating evidence should be well-researched, such as statistics, examples, and expert opinions. You can also reference personal experience. It's a good idea to have a mixture. However, you should avoid leaning too heavily on personal experience, as you want to present an argument that appears objective as you are using it to persuade your reader.

There are a couple different methods of developing your argument. Two variations of the basic argument structure are the Position Method and the Proposal Method.

Position Method[edit]

The Position Method is used to try to convince your audience that you are in the right, and the other view of your argument is wrong.

Proposal Method[edit]

The Proposal Method of argument is used when there is a problematic situation, and you would like to offer a solution to the situation. The structure of the Proposal method is very similar to the above Position method, but there are slight differences.

Dealing With the Opposition[edit]

When writing an argument, expect that you will have opposition. Skeptical readers will have their own beliefs and points of view. When conducting your research, make sure to review the opposing side of the argument that you are presenting. You need to be prepared to counter those ideas. Remember, in order for people to give up their position, they must see how your position is more reasonable than their own. When you address the opposing point of view in your essay and demonstrate how your own claim is stronger, you neutralize their argument. By failing to address a non-coinciding view, you leave a reason for your reader to disagree with you, and therefore weaken your persuasive power. Methods of addressing the opposing side of the argument vary. You may choose to state your main points, then address and refute the opposition, and then conclude. Conversely, you might summarize the opposition's views early in your argument, and then revisit them after you've presented your side or the argument. This will show how your information is more reasonable than their own.

Conclusion[edit]

You have introduced your topic, stated your claim, supported that claim with logical and reasonable evidence, and refuted your opposition's viewpoint. The hard work is done. Now it's time to wrap things up. By the time readers get to the end of your paper, they should have learned something. You should have learned something, too. Give readers an idea to take away with them. Conclude = to come together or to end (not restate what has already been said in your paper). One word of caution: avoid introducing any new information in your conclusion. If you find that there's another point that you wanted to include, revise your essay. Include this new information into the body of your essay. The conclusion should only review what the rest of your essay has offered.

Strengthening Your Argument[edit]

Phrasing[edit]

It is important to clearly state and support your position. However, it is just as important to present all of the information that you've gathered in an objective manner. Using language that is demeaning or non-objective will undermine the strength of your argument. This destroys your credibility and will reduce your audience on the spot. For example, a student writing an argument about why a particular football team has a good chance of "going all the way" is making a strategic error by stating that "anyone who doesn't think that the Minnesota Vikings deserve to win the Super Bowl is a total idiot." Not only has the writer risked alienating any number of her readers, she has also made her argument seem shallow and poorly researched. In addition, she has committed a third mistake: making a sweeping generalization that cannot be supported.

Objective Language[edit]

You should avoid using "I" and "My" (subjective) statements in your argument. You should only use "I" or "My" if you are an expert in your field (on a given topic). Instead choose more objective language to get your point across. Consider the following:

I believe that the United States Government is failing to meet the needs of today's average college student through the under-funding of need-based grants, increasingly restrictive financial aid eligibility requirements, and a lack of flexible student loan options.

"Great," your reader thinks, "Everyone's entitled to their opinion."

Now lets look at this sentence again, but without the "I" at the beginning. Does the same sentence becomes a strong statement of fact without your "I" tacked to the front?:

The United States Government is failing to meet the needs of today's average college student through the underfunding of need-based grants, increasingly restrictive financial aid eligibility requirements, and a lack of flexible student loan options.

"Wow," your reader thinks, "that really sounds like a problem."

A small change like the removal of your "I"s and "my"s can make all the difference in how a reader perceives your argument-- as such, it's always good to proof read your rough draft and look for places where you could use objective rather than subjective language.

Sample Essay[edit]

The Fallacies of Argument[edit]

Okay; your paper is filled with quality research. You're feeling good about your paper. But when you get the paper back your instructor has left a comment like, "This is an argument fallacy". So now you're left wondering what is "false" about the argument; and what is this "argument fallacy"?

Argumentative fallacies are sometimes called "logical fallacies". Usually these "fallacies" are created when the reasoning behind the argument lacks validity. A lack of validity weakens your argument, and then leads to a failure to provide a sufficient claim.

Don't feel badly if your paper says "fallacy of argument" on it. This is a common error in argumentative papers. In fact, a detailed list of "logical fallacies" can be found in the "Common Errors" section of this book (just below "Run-On" sentences and "Sentence Fragments". If you would like to see the list of logical fallacies, please visit The Writers Handbook.

"Argumentative fallacy" can be caused by your 'negligence' or lack of rigor and attention while making a certain argument. In other words, a very general argument, not followed through rigorously, can end up in something as an 'argumentative fallacy'. So, never generalize; don't just say and leave -- pursue your point to its logical termination.

A Side Note[edit]

Many topics that are written about in college are very controversial. When approaching a topic it is critical that you think about all of the implications that your argument makes. If, for example, you are writing a paper on abortion, you need to think about your audience. There will certainly be people in each of your classes that have some sort of relationship to this topic that may be different than yours. While you shouldn't let others' feelings sway your argument, you should approach each topic with a neutral mind and stay away from personal attacks. Keep your mind open to the implications of the opposition and formulate a logical stance considering the binaries equally. People may be offended by something you say, but if you have taken the time to think about the ideas that go into your paper, you should have no problem defending it.

Further Reading[edit]

  • Argumentation and Advocacy
This scholarly journal covers the various areas of argumentation. Although the information that could be valuable to certain persons is scattered, an in-depth read of all articles spanning 1989 to today would be valuable to any person studying argumentation and rhetoric. You may be able to access it from an educational facilities database.

External Links[edit]

Evaluation · Advanced Topics