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4.4: Basic Structure and Content of Argument

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    When you are tasked with crafting an argumentative essay, it is likely that you will be expected to craft your argument based upon a given number of sources–all of which should support your topic in some way. Your instructor might provide these sources for you, ask you to locate these sources, or provide you with some sources and ask you to find others. Whether or not you are asked to do additional research, an argumentative essay should contain the following basic components.

    Claim: What Do You Want the Reader to Believe?

    In an argument paper, the thesis is often called a claim. This claim is a statement in which you take a stand on a debatable issue. A strong, debatable claim has at least one valid counterargument, an opposite or alternative point of view that is as sensible as the position that you take in your claim. In your thesis statement, you should clearly and specifically state the position you will convince your audience to adopt. One way to accomplish this is via either a closed or open thesis statement.

    A closed thesis statement includes sub-claims or reasons why you choose to support your claim.

    Example of Closed Thesis Statement

    The city of Houston has displayed a commitment to attracting new residents by making improvements to its walkability, city centers, and green spaces.

    In this instance, walkability, city centers, and green spaces are the sub-claims, or reasons, why you would make the claim that Houston is attracting new residents.

    An open thesis statement does not include sub-claims and might be more appropriate when your argument is less easy to prove with two or three easily-defined sub-claims.

    Example of Open Thesis Statement

    The city of Houston is a vibrant metropolis due to its walkability, city centers, and green spaces.

    The choice between an open or a closed thesis statement often depends upon the complexity of your argument. Another possible construction would be to start with a research question and see where your sources take you.

    A research question approach might ask a large question that will be narrowed down with further investigation.

    Example of Research Question Approach

    What has the city of Houston done to attract new residents and/or make the city more accessible?

    As you research the question, you may find that your original premise is invalid or incomplete. The advantage to starting with a research question is that it allows for your writing to develop more organically according to the latest research. When in doubt about how to structure your thesis statement, seek the advice of your instructor or a writing center consultant.

    A Note on Context: What Background Information About the Topic Does Your Audience Need?

    Before you get into defending your claim, you will need to place your topic (and argument) into context by including relevant background material. Remember, your audience is relying on you for vital information such as definitions, historical placement, and controversial positions. This background material might appear in either your introductory paragraph(s) or your body paragraphs. How and where to incorporate background material depends a lot upon your topic, assignment, evidence, and audience. In most cases, kairos, or an opportune moment, factors heavily in the ways in which your argument may be received.

    Evidence or Grounds: What Makes Your Reasoning Valid?

    To validate the thinking that you put forward in your claim and sub-claims, you need to demonstrate that your reasoning is based on more than just your personal opinion. Evidence, sometimes referred to as grounds, can take the form of research studies or scholarship, expert opinions, personal examples, observations made by yourself or others, or specific instances that make your reasoning seem sound and believable. Evidence only works if it directly supports your reasoning — and sometimes you must explain how the evidence supports your reasoning (do not assume that a reader can see the connection between evidence and reason that you see).

    Warrants: Why Should a Reader Accept Your Claim?

    A warrant is the rationale the writer provides to show that the evidence properly supports the claim with each element working towards a similar goal. Think of warrants as the glue that holds an argument together and ensures that all pieces work together coherently.

    An important way to ensure you are properly supplying warrants within your argument is to use topic sentences for each paragraph and linking sentences within that connect the particular claim directly back to the thesis. Ensuring that there are linking sentences in each paragraph will help to create consistency within your essay. Remember, the thesis statement is the driving force of organization in your essay, so each paragraph needs to have a specific purpose (topic sentence) in proving or explaining your thesis. Linking sentences complete this task within the body of each paragraph and create cohesion. These linking sentences will often appear after your textual evidence in a paragraph.

    Counterargument: But What About Other Perspectives?

    Later in this section, we have included an essay by Steven Krause who offers a thorough explanation of what counterargument is (and how to respond to it). In summary, a strong arguer should not be afraid to consider perspectives that either challenge or completely oppose his or her own claim. When you respectfully and thoroughly discuss perspectives or research that counters your own claim or even weaknesses in your own argument, you are showing yourself to be an ethical arguer. The following are some things of which counter arguments may consist:

    • summarizing opposing views;
    • explaining how and where you actually agree with some opposing views;
    • acknowledging weaknesses or holes in your own argument.

    You have to be careful and clear that you are not conveying to a reader that you are rejecting your own claim. It is important to indicate that you are merely open to considering alternative viewpoints. Being open in this way shows that you are an ethical arguer – you are considering many viewpoints.

    Types of Counterarguments

    Counterarguments can take various forms and serve a range of purposes such as:

    • Could someone disagree with your claim? If so, why? Explain this opposing perspective in your own argument, and then respond to it.
    • Could someone draw a different conclusion from any of the facts or examples you present? If so, what is that different conclusion? Explain this different conclusion and then respond to it.
    • Could a reader question any of your assumptions or claims? If so, which ones would they question? Explain and then respond.
    • Could a reader offer a different explanation of an issue? If so, what might their explanation be? Describe this different explanation, and then respond to it.
    • Is there any evidence out there that could weaken your position? If so, what is it? Cite and discuss this evidence and then respond to it.

    If the answer to any of these questions is yes, that does not necessarily mean that you have a weak argument. It means ideally, and as long as your argument is logical and valid, that you have a counterargument. Good arguments can and do have counterarguments; it is important to discuss them. But you must also discuss and then respond to those counterarguments.

    Response to Counterargument: I See That, But…

    Just as it is important to include counterargument to show that you are fair-minded and balanced, you must respond to the counterargument so that a reader clearly sees that you are not agreeing with the counterargument and thus abandoning or somehow undermining your own claim. Failure to include the response to counterargument can confuse the reader. There are several ways to respond to a counterargument such as:

    • Concede to a specific point or idea from the counterargument by explaining why that point or idea has validity. However, you must then be sure to return to your own claim, and explain why even that concession does not lead you to completely accept or support the counterargument;
    • Reject the counterargument if you find it to be incorrect, fallacious, or otherwise invalid;
    • Explain why the counterargument perspective does not invalidate your own claim.

    A Note About Where to Put the Counterargument

    It is certainly possible to begin the argument section (after the background section) with your counterargument + response instead of placing it at the end of your essay. Some people prefer to have their counterargument first where they can address it and then spend the rest of their essay building their own case and supporting their own claim. However, it is just as valid to have the counterargument + response appear at the end of the paper after you have discussed all of your reasons.

    What is important to remember is that wherever you place your counterargument, you should:

    • Address the counterargument(s) fully:
      • Explain what the counter perspectives are;
      • Describe them thoroughly;
      • Cite authors who have these counter perspectives;
      • Quote them and summarize their thinking.
    • Then, respond to these counterarguments:
      • Make it clear to the reader of your argument why you concede to certain points of the counterargument or why you reject them;
      • Make it clear that you do not accept the counterargument, even though you understand it;
      • Be sure to use transitional phrases that make this clear to your reader.

    Responding to Counterarguments

    You do not need to attempt to do all of these things as a way to respond. Instead, choose the response strategy that makes the most sense to you for the counterargument that you find:

    • If you agree with some of the counterargument perspectives, you can concede some of their points. (“I do agree that ….”, “Some of the points made by X are valid…..”) You could then challenge the importance/usefulness of those points;
      • “However, this information does not apply to our topic because…”
    • If the counterargument perspective is one that contains different evidence than you have in your own argument, you can explain why a reader should not accept the evidence that the counterarguer presents;
    • If the counterargument perspective is one that contains a different interpretation of evidence than you have in your own argument, you can explain why a reader should not accept the interpretation of the evidence that your opponent (counterarguer) presents.

    If the counterargument is an acknowledgement of evidence that threatens to weaken your argument, you must explain why and how that evidence does not, in fact, invalidate your claim.

    It is important to use transitional phrases in your paper to alert readers when you’re about to present a counterargument. It’s usually best to put this phrase at the beginning of a paragraph such as:

    • Researchers have challenged these claims with…
    • Critics argue that this view…
    • Some readers may point to…
    • A perspective that challenges the idea that…

    Transitional phrases will again be useful to highlight your shift from counterargument to response:

    • Indeed, some of those points are valid. However, . . .
    • While I agree that . . . , it is more important to consider . . .
    • These are all compelling points. Still, other information suggests that . .
    • While I understand . . . , I cannot accept the evidence because . . .[1]

    In the section that follows, the Toulmin method of argumentation is described and further clarifies the terms discussed in this section.

    Practice Activity

    The original version of this chapter contained H5P content. You may want to remove or replace this element.

    This section contains material from:

    Amanda Lloyd and Emilie Zickel. “Basic Structure of Arguments.” In A Guide to Rhetoric, Genre, and Success in First-Year Writing, by Melanie Gagich and Emilie Zickel. Cleveland: MSL Academic Endeavors. Accessed July 2019. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

    Jeffrey, Robin. “Counterargument and Response.” In A Guide to Rhetoric, Genre, and Success in First-Year Writing, by Melanie Gagich and Emilie Zickel. Cleveland: MSL Academic Endeavors. Accessed July 2019. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

    OER credited the texts above includes:

    Jeffrey, Robin. About Writing: A Guide. Portland, OR: Open Oregon Educational Resources. Accessed December 18, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

    1. This section originally contained the following attribution: This page contains material from “About Writing: A Guide” by Robin Jeffrey, OpenOregon Educational Resources, Higher Education Coordination Commission: Office of Community Colleges and Workforce Development is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

    This page titled 4.4: Basic Structure and Content of Argument is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Terri Pantuso, Emilie Zickel, Amanda Lloyd, Robin Jeffery, Robin Jeffrey, & Robin Jeffrey via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.