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When blithe to argument I come,
Though armed with facts, and merry,
May Providence protect me from
The fool as adversary,
Whose mind to him a kingdom is
Where reason lacks dominion,
Who calls conviction prejudice
And prejudice opinion.
                       —Phyllis McGinley

As much as we would have it be otherwise, our belief that something is true or right is not proof that it is right. All of us have had an encounter with a policy or practice that seems to go dead against what we know to be right. In such moments, we feel there is no justice in the universe, or no God to ensure that there is good in the world. Other human beings, however, do not necessarily see truth and righteousness as we do, and so we must argue, prove to others that our truths are valid truths.

An argument is an attempt to convince others of a truth as we perceive it. Arugments in written form have been around since ancient Greece, and so today, we expect arguments to have particular features: a claim, evidence to support a claim, a refutation of opposing arguments, and a conclusion.  In this module, students will learn to construct a strong argument that has these features.


In this module students will learn to

  • state a clear claim
  • provide convincing evidence to support a claim
  • refute opposing arguments
  • write a strong conclusion


Making a Claim

A "claim" is like a thesis for an essay in that it is a promise to the reader about what will be supported or proved in the essay; however, a claim is usually a stronger and often more emotional proposition that a thesis in an expository essay. As Arlo Bates writes in Talks on Writing English  (1894), "The difference between exposition and argument is the difference between peace and war." In an argument, the writer is generally ready for disagreement, and writes to convince those who disagree to change their minds. Take a look at the following claims that set up argument essays:

We need to stop repeating nonsense about the uncertainty of global warming and start talking seriously about the right approach to address it.

Mr. Gore assures us that "the debate in the scientific community is over.". . . That statement, which Mr. Gore made in an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC, ought to have been followed by an asterisk. What exactly is this debate that Mr. Gore is referring to? Is there really a scientific community that is debating all these issues and then somehow agreeing in unison? Far from such a thing being over, it has never been clear to me what this "debate" actually is in the first place.

In each of these essays, the author makes a strong and clear claim at the beginning of the essay. With this clarity established up front, the reader knows what to expect in the essay that will follow.




In argument, evidence is key.  Without solid support, well explained, the reader will never accept the writer's claim.  Below are examples of the kinds of evidence that you might use to build a strong argument.

Cite authority on a topic:  quotations from experts used to back up (not replace) your points work very well.  In using quotes and paraphrase effectively, you show that you have done your research and that you are able to distinguish expert from amateur authorities.  Who you side with can go a long way to establishing the validity of your argument.  Be very careful, however, not to hide behind these quotes.  If you let others speak for you, you risk appearing unsure of yourself.  Read the module on Working with Sources for more help with using sources in your writing.

Cite statistics or research:  Often solid research findings or statistics can complement a more theoretical argument.  They work especially well as a complement to anecdotal or narrative examples to support an argument.

Anecdotal evidence & Case Studies: Though case studies are not very effective if a study is the only evidence one has (not a large enough sample to be valid), such studies can be very effective in showing readers the way more abstract or general principles have an effect in the real world, on real lives.  In an essay on Parkinson's Disease and the importance of stem cell research to find a cure, a student might write a case study of an individual with Parkinson's to show how devastating the disease is.

Take a look at the module on Paragraph Development for help learning how to integrate evidence into one's argument.


Refuting Opposing Arguments

If one fights a battle in an argument, however, great or small, there is an opposition that must be dealt with. It is not effective to write an argument without acknowledging opposing arguments and showing why those arguments are not valid. Otherwise, your opposition will come away from the essay with a lot of "Yes, but . . . " thoughts.  A good way to handle opposing arguments is to look for what makes sense in the argument—find something you can agree with—and then find where the position falls apart, or fails to be substantial enough to support a particular position. Then, in your own writing you can discuss these arguments with phrases like "While . . . is true, there are many problems with this position," or "X would seem like the answer; however, . . . ," etc. Sometimes writers like to "do away with the opposition" right away after the opening paragraph and then get into the position that the writer wants the reader to adopt in the rest of the essay.

Take a look at the following arguments for an against stem cell research.  Note the way the authors respond to opposing arguments:

Cal Thomas' article against stem cell research....is not particularly useful, because it does not deal with his fundamental belief that human personhood begins at conception. Similarly, articles by medical groups that promote stem cell research are not helpful, because they do not touch on their fundamental belief that embryos are not human persons. If there is to be any hope of resolving these issues, we must debate when human personhood begins. If we can reach a near consensus on this, then abortion, in-vitro fertilization, stem cell research and other debates will neatly resolve themselves. (Religious Tolerance)

"...it is ridiculous for people who have already decided that it is moral to kill babies in the womb to show some squeamishness about destroying human embryos in a petri dish. Hell, man, once you decide to become a child-killer, their ages no longer matter. Or the numbers. Damnation of your soul is completed with the first one." (Religious Tolerance)

Religioustolerance.org. 2007. http://www.religioustolerance.org/res_stem.htm


It is very important to understand one's audience when making an argument, particular when the issue, such as abortion rights, stem cell research, genetically modified foods, immigration policies, is controversial. A writer needs to try and empathize with the reader, to understand the reader's biases and concerns, in order to know how to talk to the reader, and what it would be best to talk about.  In addition, it is important to know the knowledge level of one's audience in order to not waste time defining terms the reader already knows, or conversely, to avoid using too many terms the reader does not understand.  Tone is a factor as well with readers: Would the reader respond to a more lighthearted tone, a bit of humor, or a more serious, passionate angle.  Would an objective, scholarly tone work best? The answer depends largely on who one is writing to.


Logical Fallacies

Logical fallacies are logical mistakes that fall into particular categories.  It is useful to know what these fallacies are so that you can check your own work to ensure that it is free from logical fallacies, and also to check the arguments made by others for errors in logic.

Below is a list of the most common logical fallacies.  It might be useful to print these out and have them handy when checking your work.

Ad Hominem: "against the man" or "against the person."

Appeal to Authority: Suggests that because someone is an expert (or claims to be) on something, everything he has to say about anything, even a topic outside of the field of expertise, is true.

Appeal to Emotion: This is an attempt to persuade by soliciting an emotional response such as pity or sympathy rather than evidence.  For example, "Just look at this poor man. It is obvious he feels devastated by what he has done. Why should we punish him unfairly?"

Bandwagon Appeal: Peer pressure.  Since person A is doing it (believes it), we all should do it (believe it).

Begging the Question: A fallacy in which the conclusion is claimed as being true in the premise: "God exists because the bible says he exists and the bible was written by God."

False Dilemma: Occurs when two options are suggested, when others may be available: "Either we do away with the automobile now, or we die tomorrow."

Hasty Generalization: occurs when a general conclusion is drawn from too small a sample: "Margaret is over eighty and she hates going to the movies now; I think old people, generally, don't like to go to the movies."

Post Hoc: means "after this; therefore, because of this." In other words, it is the assumption becuase B follows A, B was caused by A.  For example, "Brittney got sick right after eating at the Bon Thai; I will not be eating there anymore."

Slippery Slope Argument: Assumes that doing one thing will automatically lead to doing other things: "If you get a credit card, you are going to end up in debt!"





Video Lessons

arguments video lesson


1. Making a claim

2. Evidence

3. Refuting opposing arguments

4. Audience

5. Logical fallacies


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