Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

1.3: Recognizing and Explicating Arguments

  • Page ID
  • Before we get down to the business of evaluating arguments—deciding whether they’re good or bad—we need to develop some preliminary analytical skills. The first of these is, simply, the ability to recognize arguments when we see them, and to figure out what the conclusion is (and what the premises are).

    What we want to learn first is how to explicate arguments. This involves writing down a bunch of declarative sentences that express the propositions in the argument, and clearly marking which of these sentences expresses the conclusion.

    Let’s start with a simple example. Here’s an argument:

    You really shouldn’t eat at McDonald’s. Why? First of all, they pay their workers very low wages. Second, the animals that go into their products are raised in deplorable, inhumane conditions. Third, the food is really bad for you. Finally, the burgers have poop in them. (I know, I know. But it’s almost certainly true. Consumer Reports conducted a study in 2015, in which they tested 458 pounds of ground beef, purchased from 103 different stores in 26 different cities; all of the 458 pounds were contaminated with fecal matter. This is because most commercial ground beef is produced at facilities that process thousands of animals, and do it very quickly. The quickness ensures that sometimes—rarely, but sometimes—a knife- cut goes astray and the gastrointestinal tract is nicked, releasing poop. It gets cleaned up, but again, things are moving fast, so they don’t quite get all the poop. Now you’ve got one carcass—again, out of hundreds or thousands—contaminated with feces. But they make ground beef in a huge vat, with meat from all those carcasses mixed together. So even one accident like this contaminates the whole batch. So yeah, those burgers—basically all burgers, unless you're grinding your own meat or sourcing your beef from a local farm—have poop in them. Not much, but it’s there. Of course, it won’t make you sick as long as you cook it right: 160° F is enough to kill the poop-bacteria (E-coli, etc.), so, you know, no big deal. Except for the knowledge that you’re eating poop. Sorry.)

    The passage is clearly argumentative: its purpose is to convince you of something, namely, that you shouldn’t eat at McDonald’s. That’s the conclusion of the argument. The other claims are all reasons for believing the conclusion—reasons for not eating at McDonald’s. Those are the premises.

    To explicate the argument is simply to clearly identify the premises and the conclusion, by writing down declarative sentences that express them. We would explicate the McDonald’s argument like this:

    McDonald’s pays its workers very low wages.
    The animals that go into their products are raised in deplorable, inhumane conditions.
    McDonald’s food is really bad for you.
    Their burgers have poop in them.
    Therefore, you shouldn’t eat at McDonald’s.

    We separate the conclusion from the premises with a horizontal line, and we put a special symbol in front of the conclusion, which can be read as “therefore.”

    Speaking of ‘therefore’, it’s one of the words to look out for when identifying and explicating arguments. Along with words like ‘consequently’ and ‘thus’, and phrases like ‘it follows that’ and ‘which implies that’, it indicates the presence of the conclusion of an argument. Similarly, words like ‘because’, ‘since’, and ‘for’ indicate the presence of premises.

    We should also note that it is possible for a single sentence to express more than one proposition. If we added this sentence to our argument—‘McDonald’s advertising targets children to try to create lifetime addicts to their high-calorie foods, and their expansion into global markets has disrupted native food distribution systems, harming family farmers’—we would write down two separate declarative sentences in our explication, expressing the two propositions asserted in the sentence—about children and international farmers, respectively. Indeed, it’s possible for a single sentence to express an entire argument. ‘You shouldn’t eat at McDonald’s because they’re a bad corporate actor’ gives you a conclusion and a premise at once. An explication would merely separate them.


    The argument about McDonald’s was an easy case. It didn’t have a word like ‘therefore’ to tip us off to the presence of the conclusion, but it was pretty clear what the conclusion was anyway. All we had to do was ask ourselves, “What is this person trying to convince me to believe?” The answer to that question is the conclusion of the argument.

    Another way the McDonald’s argument was easy: all of the sentences were declarative sentences, so when we explicated the argument, all we had to do was write them down. But sometimes argumentative passages aren’t so cooperative. Sometimes they contain non-declarative sentences. Recall, arguments are sets of propositions, and only declarative sentences express propositions; so if an argumentative passage contains non-declarative sentences (questions, commands, etc.), we need to change their wording when we explicate the argument, turning them into declarative sentences that express a proposition. This is called paraphrasing.

    Suppose, for example, that the McDonald’s argument were exactly as originally presented, except the first sentence were imperative, not declarative:

    Don’t eat at McDonald’s. Why? First of all, they pay their workers very low wages. Second, the animals that go into their products are raised in deplorable, inhumane conditions. Third, the food is really bad for you. Finally, the burgers have poop in them.

    We just switched from ‘You shouldn’t eat at McDonald’s’ to ‘Don’t eat at McDonald’s.’ But it makes a difference. The first sentence is declarative; it makes a claim about how things are(morally, with respect to your obligations in some sense): you shouldn’t do such-and-such. It’s possible to disagree with the claim: Sure I should, and so should everybody else; their fries are delicious! ‘Don’t eat at McDonald’s’, on the other hand, is not like that. It’s a command. It’s possible to disobey it, but not to disagree with it; imperative sentences don’t make claims about how things are, don’t express propositions.

    Still, the passage is clearly argumentative: the purpose remains to persuade the listener not to eat at McDonald’s. We just have to be careful, when we explicate the argument, to paraphrase the first sentence—to change its wording so that it becomes a declarative, proposition-expressing sentence. ‘You shouldn’t eat at McDonald’s’ works just fine. Let’s consider a different example:

    I can’t believe anyone would support a $15 per hour minimum wage.
    Don’t they realize that it would lead to massive job losses?
    And the strain such a policy would put on small businesses could lead to an economic recession.

    The passage is clearly argumentative: this person is engaged in a dispute about a controversial issue—the minimum wage—and is staking out a position and backing it up. What is that position? Apparently, this person opposes the idea of raising the minimum wage to $15.

    There are two problems we face in explicating this argument. First, one of the sentences in the passage—the second one—is non-declarative: it’s an interrogative sentence, a question. Nevertheless, it’s being used in this passage to express one of the person’s reasons for opposing the minimum wage increase—that it would lead to job losses. So we need to paraphrase, transforming the interrogative into a declarative—something like ‘A $15 minimum wage would lead to massive job losses’.

    The other problem is that the first sentence, while a perfectly respectable declarative sentence, can’t be used as-is in our explication. For while it’s clearly being used by to express this person’s main point, the conclusion of his argument against the minimum wage increase, it does so indirectly. What the sentence literally and directly expresses is not a claim about the wisdom of the minimum wage increase, but rather a claim about the speaker’s personal beliefs: ‘I can’t believe anyone would support a $15 per hour minimum wage’. But that claim isn’t the conclusion of the argument. The speaker isn’t trying to convince people that he believes (or can’t believe) a certain thing; he’s trying to convince them to believe the same thing he believes, namely, that raising the minimum wage to $15 is a bad idea. So, despite the first sentence being a declarative, we still have to paraphrase it. It expresses a proposition, but not the conclusion of the argument. Our explication of the argument would look like this:

    Increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour would lead to massive job losses.
    The policy would put a strain on small businesses that might lead to a recession.
    Therefore, increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour is a bad idea.

    Enthymemes: Tacit Propositions

    So sometimes, when we explicate an argument, we have to take what’s present in the argumentative passage and change it slightly, so that all of the sentences we write down express the propositions that are in the argument. This is paraphrasing. Other times, we have to do even more: occasionally, we have to fill in missing propositions; argumentative passages might not state all of the propositions in an argument explicitly, and in the course of explicating their arguments, we have to make these implicit, tacit propositions explicit by writing down the appropriate declarative sentences.

    There’s a fancy Greek word for argumentative passages that leave certain propositions unstated: enthymemes. Here’s an example:

    Hillary Clinton has more experience in public office than Donald Trump; she has a much deeper knowledge of the issues; she’s the only one with the proper temperament to lead our country. I rest my case.

    Again, the argumentative intentions here are plain: this person is staking out a position on a controversial topic—a presidential election. But notice, that position—that one should prefer Clinton to Trump—is never stated explicitly. We get reasons for having that preference—the premises of the argument are explicit—but we never get a statement of the conclusion. But since this is clearly the upshot of the passage, we need to include a sentence expressing it in our explication:

    Clinton has more experience than Trump.
    Clinton has deeper knowledge of issues than Trump.
    Clinton has the proper temperament to lead the country, while Trump does not.
    Therefore, one should prefer Clinton to Trump in the presidential election.

    In that example, the conclusion of the argument was tacit. Sometimes, premises are unstated and we should make them explicit in our explication of the argument. Now consider this passage:

    The sad fact is that wages for middle-class workers have stagnated over the past several decades. We need a resurgence of the union movement in this country.

    This person is arguing in favor of labor unions; the second sentence is the conclusion of the argument. The first sentence gives the only explicit premise: the stagnation of middle-class wages. But notice what the passage doesn’t say: what connection there might be between the two things. What do unions have to do with middle-class wages?

    There’s an implicit premise lurking in the background here—something that hasn’t been said, but which needs to be true for the argument to go through. We need a claim that connects the premise to the conclusion—that bridges the gap between them. Something like this: A resurgence of unions would lead to wage growth for middle-class workers. The first sentence identifies a problem; the second sentence purports to give a solution to the problem. But it’s only a solution if the tacit premise we’ve uncovered is true. If unions don’t help raise middle-class wages, then the argument falls apart.

    This is the mark of the kinds of tacit premises we want to uncover: if they’re false, they undermine the argument. Often, premises like this are unstated for a reason: they’re controversial claims on their own, requiring a lot of evidence to support them; so the arguer leaves them out, preferring not to get bogged down. When we draw them out, however, we can force a more robust dialectical exchange, focusing the argument on the heart of the matter. In this case, a discussion about the connection between unions and middle-class wages would be in order. There’s a lot to be said on that topic.

    Arguments vs. Explanations

    One final item on the topic of “Recognizing and Explicating Arguments.” We’ve been focusing on explication; this is a remark about the recognition side. Some passages may superficially resemble arguments—they may, for example, contain words like ‘therefore’ and ‘because’, which normally indicate conclusions and premises in argumentative passages—but which are nevertheless not argumentative. Instead, they are explanations.

    Consider this passage:

    Because female authors of her time were often stereotyped as writing light-hearted romances, and because her real name was well-known for other (sometimes scandalous) reasons, Mary Ann Evans was reluctant to use her own name for her novels. She wanted her work to be taken seriously and judged on its own merits. Therefore, she adopted the pen name ‘George Eliot’.

    This passage has the words ‘because’ (twice), and ‘therefore’, which typically indicate the presence of premises and a conclusion, respectively. But it is not an argument. It’s not an argument because it does not have the rhetorical purpose of an argument: the aim of the passage is not to convince you of something. If it were an argument, the conclusion would be the claim following‘therefore’, namely, the proposition that Mary Ann Evans adopted the pen name ‘George Eliot’. But this claim is not the conclusion of an argument; the passage is not trying to persuade us to believe that Evans adopted a pen name. That she did so is not a controversial claim. Rather, that’s a fact that’s assumed to be known already. The aim of the passage is to explain to us why Evans made that choice. The rhetorical purpose is not to convince; it is to inform, to edify. The passage is an explanation, not an argument.

    So, to determine whether a given passage is an argument or an explanation, we need to figure out its rhetorical purpose. Why is the author saying these things to me? Is she trying to convince me of something, or is she merely trying to inform me—to give me an explanation for something I already knew? Sometimes this is easy, as with the George Eliot passage; it’s hard to imagine someone saying those things with persuasive intent. Other times, however, it’s not so easy. Consider the following:

    Many of the celebratory rituals [of Christmas], as well as the timing of the holiday, have their origins outside of, and may predate, the Christian commemoration of the birth of Jesus. Those traditions, at their best, have much to do with celebrating human relationships and the enjoyment that this life has to offer. As an atheist, I have no hesitation in embracing the holiday and joining with believers and nonbelievers alike to celebrate what we have in common. (John Teehan, 12/24/2006, “A Holiday Season for Atheists, Too,” The New York Times. Excerpted in Copi and Cohen, 2009, Introduction to Logic 13e, p. 25.)

    Unless we understand a little bit more about the context of this passage, it’s difficult to determine the speaker’s intentions. It may appear to be an argument. That atheists should embrace a religious holiday like Christmas is, among many, a controversial claim. Controversial claims are the kinds of claims that we often try to convince skeptical people to believe. If the speaker’s audience for this passage is a bunch of hard-line atheists, who vehemently reject anything with a whiff of religiosity, who consider Christmas a humbug, then it’s pretty clear that the speaker is trying to offer reasons for them to reconsider their stance; he’s trying to convince them to embrace Christmas; he’s making an argument. If we explicated the argument, we would paraphrase the last sentence to represent the controversial conclusion: ‘Atheists should have no hesitation embracing and celebrating Christmas’.

    But in a different context, with a different audience, this may not be an argument. If we leave the claim in the final sentence as-is—‘As an atheist, I have no hesitation in embracing the holiday and joining with believers and nonbelievers alike to celebrate what we have in common’—we have a claim about the speaker’s personal beliefs and inclinations. Typically, as we saw above, such claims are not suitable as the conclusions of arguments; we don’t usually spend time trying to convince people that we believe such-and-such. But what is more typical is providing people with explanations for why we believe things. If the author of our passage is an atheist, and he’s saying these things to friends of his, say, who know he’s an atheist, we might have just such an explanation. His friends know he’s not religious, but they know he loves Christmas. That’s kind of weird. Don’t atheists hate religious holidays? Not so, says our speaker. Let me explain to you why I have no problems with Christmas, despite my atheism.

    Again, the difference between arguments and explanations comes down to rhetorical purpose: arguments try to convince people; explanations try to inform them. Determining whether a given passage is one or the other involves figuring out the author’s intentions. To do this, we must carefully consider the context of the passage.


    1. Identify the conclusions in the following arguments.

    (a) Every citizen has a right—nay, a duty—to defend himself and his family. This is all the more important in these increasingly dangerous times. The framers of the Constitution, in their wisdom, enshrined the right to bear arms in that very document. We should all oppose efforts to restrict access to guns.

    (b) Totino’s pizza rolls are the perfect food. They have all the great flavor of pizza, with the added benefit of portability!

    (c) Because they go overboard making things user-friendly, Apple phones are inferior to those with Android operating systems. If you want to change the default settings on an Apple phone to customize it to your personal preferences, it’s practically impossible to figure out how. The interface is so dumbed down to appeal to the “average consumer” that it’s super hard to find where the controls for advanced settings even are. On Android phones, though, everything’s right there in the open.

    (d) The U.S. incarcerates more people per capita than any other country on Earth, many for non-violent drug offenses. Militarized policing of our inner cities has led to scores of unnecessary deaths and a breakdown of trust between law enforcement and the communities they are supposed to serve and protect. We need to end the “War on Drugs”now. Our criminal justice system is broken. The War on Drugs broke it.

    (e) The point of a watch is to tell you what time it is. Period. Rolexes are a complete waste of money. They don’t do any better at telling the time, and they cost a ton!

    2. Explicate the following arguments, paraphrasing as necessary.

    (a) You think that if the victims of the mass shooting had been armed that would’ve made things better? Are you nuts? The shooting took place in a bar; not even the NRA thinks it’s a good idea to allow people to carry guns in a drinking establishment. And don’t be fooled by the fantasy that “good guys with guns” would prevent mass murder. More likely, the situation would’ve been even bloodier, with panicked people shooting randomly all over the place.

    (b) The heat will escape the house through the open door, which means the heater will keep running, which will make our power bill go through the roof. Then we’ll be broke.So stop leaving the door open when you come into the house.

    (c) Do you like delicious food? How about fun games? And I know you like cool prizes. Well then, Chuck E. Cheese’s is the place for you.

    3. Write down the tacit premises that the following arguments depend on for their success.

    (a) Cockfighting is an exciting pastime enjoyed by many people. It should therefore be legal.

    (b) The president doesn’t understand the threat we face. He won’t even use the phrase “Radical Islamic Terror.”

    4. Write down the tacit conclusion that follows most immediately from the following.

    (a) If there really were an all-loving God looking down on us, then there wouldn’t be so much death and destruction visited upon innocent people.

    (b) The death penalty is immoral. Numerous studies have shown that there is racial bias in its application. The rise of DNA testing has exonerated scores of inmates on death row; who knows how many innocent people have been killed in the past? The death penalty is also impractical. Revenge is counterproductive: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” as Gandhi said. Moreover, the costs of litigating death penalty cases, with their endless appeals, are enormous. The correct decision for policymakers is clear.

    5. Decide whether the following are arguments or explanations, given their context. If the passage is an argument, write down its conclusion; if it is an explanation, write down the fact that is being explained.

    (a) Michael Jordan is the best of all time. I don’t care if Kareem scored more points; I don’t care if Russell won more championships. The simple fact is that no other player in history displayed the stunning combination of athleticism, competitive drive, work ethic, and sheer jaw-dropping artistry of Michael Jordan. [Context: Sports talk radio host going on a “rant”]

    (b) Because different wavelengths of light travel at different velocities when they pass through water droplets, they are refracted at different angles. Because these different wavelengths correspond to different colors, we see the colors separated. Therefore, if the conditions are right, rainbows appear when the sun shines through the rain. [Context: grade school science textbook]

    (c) The primary motivation for the Confederate States in the Civil War was not so much the preservation of the institution of slavery, but the preservation of the sovereignty of individual states guaranteed by the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Southerners of the time were not the simple-minded racists they were often depicted to be. Leaders in the southern states were disturbed by the over-reach of the Federal government into issues of policy more properly decided by the states. That slavery was one of those issues is incidental. [Context: excerpt from Rebels with a Cause: An Alternative History of the Civil War]

    (d) This is how natural selection works: those species with traits that promote reproduction tend to have an advantage over competitors and survive; those without such traits tend to die off. The way that humans reproduce is by having sex. Since the human species has survived, it must have traits that encourage reproduction—that encourage having sex. This is why sex feels good. Sex feels good because if it didn’t, the species would not have survived. [Context: excerpt from Evolutionary Biology for Dummies]