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What is An Argument?
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 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:
- 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!
"If you can't annoy somebody, there's little point in writing."
--Kingsley Amis (1922 - 1995)
Basic Argument Essay Structure
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.
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
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.
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.
- Introduce and define your topic. Never assume that your reader is familiar with the issues surrounding your topic. This is your chance to set up the premise (point of view) you want to use. This is also a good time to present your thesis statement.
- Background information. Do your research! The more knowledgeable you are, the more concise an argument you will be able to give. You will now be able to provide your reader with the best information possible. This will allow your audience to read your paper with the same knowledge you possess on the topic. Information is the backbone to a solid argument.
- Development. You have your argument, and you may have even stated your thesis. Now, start developing your ideas. Provide evidence and reasoning.
- Be prepared to deal with the "Other Side." There will be those who oppose your argument. Be prepared to answer those opinions or points of view with knowledgeable responses. If you have done your homework and know your material, you will be able to address any opposing arguments with ease and authority.
- In conclusion... Now is the time to drive home your point. Re-emphasize your main arguments and thesis statement.
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.
- Introduce and define the nature of the problematic situation. Make sure to focus on the actual problem and what is causing the problem. This may seem simple, but many people focus solely on the effects of a problematic situation. By focusing on the actual problem, your readers will see your proposal as a solution to the problem. If you don't, your readers might see your solution as a mere complaint.
- Propose a solution, or a number of solutions, to the problem. Be specific about these solutions. If you have one solution, you may choose to break it into parts and spend a paragraph or so describing each part. If you have several solutions, you may instead choose to spend a paragraph on each scenario. Each additional solution will add both depth and length to your argument. But remember to stay focused. Added length does not always equal a better argument.
- Describe the workability of the various solutions. There are a variety of ways that this could be done. With a single-solution paper you could break the feasibility down into short and long term goals and plans. With a multiple-solution essay, you may instead highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the individual solutions, and establish which would be the most successful, based on your original statement of the problem and its causes.
- Summarize and conclude your proposal. Summarize your solutions, re-state how the solution or solutions would work to remedy the problematic situation, and you're done.
Dealing With the Opposition
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.
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
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.
Mistakes that could ruin your Argument
Use phrasing that does not:
- Alienate any part of your audience
- Make an argument that is poorly researched or shallow
- Make an unsupported generalization
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 Exposition Essay
PGA Tour, Inc. v Casey Martin
Casey Martin was born with a degenerative circulatory disorder that makes his right leg very weak. Casey Martin has shown that he possesses the ability to compete on the PGA tour. He has confessed, “All I ever wanted was the chance to play and to see how good I could be” (Faces 1). Yet it’s been written that “Walking not only causes him pain, fatigue, and anxiety, but also created a significant risk of hemorrhaging, developing blood clots, fracturing his tibia so badly an amputation might be required” (PGA Tour 9). This disorder prevents Martin from walking the golf course. If he is unable to walk due to health reasons, his only option to find out just how good he actually is requires the use of a golf cart. Yet the PGA has rules against the usage of golf carts.
The PGA Tour has a rule saying players must walk the third and final stage of the golf tournament. While in Q School, a qualifying school for professional golfers, Martin submitted a request to be able to use a golf cart throughout the entire tournament. The PGA Tour denied his request. The PGA feels that walking is an integral part of the game, and being allowed to use a golf cart would give the individual an advantage over the rest of the field (Finchem 2). Subsequently, the PGA thought that if Martin used a golf cart it would fundamentally alter the nature of the tournament by giving him an unfair advantage.
Under the American’s with Disabilities Act, Martin filed a lawsuit which reads, “Prohibits discrimination on the basis of employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation and telecommunications” (United States). Martin filed his suit specifically under Title III of the Act which requires public accommodations to make reasonable modifications for the disabled. The PGA Tour, a recreational facility and activity, is considered a public accommodation. Both the lower courts and the Supreme Court agreed with Martin. He had a right to use a motorized golf cart under the ADA because the PGA Tour is a public accommodation, and that it would not fundamentally alter the nature of the tournament. The PGA Tour, Q School, and any “. . . golf courses, including play areas, are places of public accommodation during professional golf tournaments” (PGA Tour 2). Casey Martin was discriminated against because of his disability and because golf course are specifically identified as a public accommodation under Title III of the ADA.
Originally Casey Martin was told by the PGA Tour that they would not accommodate his disability. The PGA feels that the playing field must be the same for every player, and allowing Martin to use a cart would give him an advantage over other players. The PGA argues that walking, and the loss of concentration due to fatigue, is part of the challenge of playing professional golf at its highest level (Finchem 2). The PGA also argues that using a golf cart would take out much of the physical conditioning factor of the sport. The PGA Tour claimed they were not required to allow Casey Martin to use a cart, but in the end it turns out that the PGA was required because the tournament is a public place.
As it is organized, “Any member of the public may enter the Q School by submitting two letters of recommendation and paying a $3,000 entry fee” (PGA Tour 1). The golfers of the PGA pay to be a part of the PGA, therefore they are considered customers, and would make the PGA a public accommodation. The golfers pay for privileges such as Q School and to compete in the tournaments. Since Martin paid to play professional golf, and also paid his way through his qualifying school, he should not have been discriminated against while competing. The Supreme Court ruled that Martin was a customer of competition when he practices his profession. Martin was a customer to this public accommodation, therefore the PGA Tour should be required to make reasonable modifications, and allow Casey Martin to use his golf cart.
Also, Casey Martin’s use of a golf cart would not “fundamentally alter” the core nature of the tournament. The PGA Tour argues, “While carts have become commonplace for recreational golf, walking had been an integral part of the tournament competition throughout the game’s history. Walking is a fundamental part of tournaments in championship competitions . . .” (Finchem 2). Yet the core nature of golf is aiming for the hole. “The use of carts is not inconsistent with the fundamental character of golf, the essence of which has always been shot-making. The walking rule contained in petitioner’s hard cards is neither an essential attribute of the game itself nor an indispensable feature of tournament golf” (PGA Tour 3). This means that the game of golf is based on where the ball ends up and not on the endurance of walking. Yes golf is a game of strategy where one attempts to put the golf ball in the hole in the fewest strokes possible. But golf is not a mellow version of cross country running. Nor is it based on how far you can walk.
The golfers participating in the PGA Tour tournament do not need the walking stage of golf, because it is not essential to the game of golf. The PGA will argue that it is essential because of the endurance factor. However, walking the distance of the course is not part of the formal rules of golf (DREDF 2). It is the golfer’s choice to walk the course. The PGA will argue that weather affects game play. “Using a cart would be somewhat of an advantage all the time and could be a great advantage in many circumstances . . .rain delays . . .the temperature and the humidity are both in the nineties . . .” (Finchem 2). In this case however, the variety of conditions the player would have to deal with would only matter if they were playing a multi-day tournament (DREDF 2). If a tournament is only one day in length, the fatigue factor of walking will generally be minimal compared to the other factors.
In the end, Casey Martin would be enduring enough pain as it is with his disorder. The pain caused by his disorder can be compared to other golfers walking the final stage of the tournament. Martin’s disability causes him enough pain going from cart to shot that he would not have an advantage (DREDF 2). The PGA tour argues that it would indeed be unfair because other golfers would be walking, and that Casey Martin would have an advantage over everyone else walking the course. No matter what the PGA believes, the Supreme Court agrees with Martin, “. . . that even with the use of a cart, the fatigue Martin suffers from coping with his disability is greater than the fatigue his able-bodied competitors endure from walking the course” (PGA Tour). Even with the cart, Casey Martin must walk over a mile during an 18-hole round of golf. The combination of Casey Martin’s pain and the distance he will still walk would be enough that the other golfers would still have an advantage over him.
All Casey Martin ever wanted to do was to be the best he could possibly be. Does the PGA Tour have the right to shatter Casey Martin’s dreams because of a degenerative disorder? In his own words Casey Martin says, “Without the ADA I never would have been able to pursue my dream of playing golf professionally” (Faces 1). With a clarity the PGA should have began with, the Supreme Court agreed that Casey Martin did indeed have the right to pursue his dream. (This essay is from Stephanie Wolf and has been modified to fit the parameters of this book.)
The Fallacies of Argument
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
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.
- 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.