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The term argument has two meanings in academic writing.

First, it means an essay that takes a


position on one side of a controversial issue. You might write an argument against the death
penalty, or for or against censorship of pornography. But argument has another meaning, too. It
means an essay that, simply, argues a point. You might construct an argument about the meaning
of ancestor myths in a certain aborigine culture, or you might write an argument defending your
interpretation of "Tintern Abbey." You are not necessarily taking one side of a controversial
issue, but you are required to defend your points with persuasive evidence. You are taking a
position.

In a sense, then, an argument is another word for a thesis. An argument needs to be narrow
enough for you to defend in the length of essay assigned. You need to be able to find enough
evidence to support your assertions. You need to make a point worth arguing: a point that elicits
a "so what?" from your reader will not generate a strong essay.

The "so what" question is a good test for your argument. If you pursue your argument, why is it
important? What will readers learn from it? How will it illuminate a text or help us to answer a
problem? The "so what" question can help you to distinguish a summary of observations from a
real argument. For example, you may notice that in a certain short story there are recurring
images of light and dark. This observation strikes you as interesting: why? What question do you
want to ask about this imagery? What inferences can you draw from this imagery? When you
notice something interesting in a text, you are on your way to asking a question, and that
question puts you on your way to formulating an argument.

Argument essays begin with good questions. Often, those questions are generated by primary
texts. You notice something surprising, disturbing, or interesting in the text, and you formulate a
question to help you understand why. Sometimes your questions come from your dissatisfaction
with the interpretations offered in secondary sources. You think: although expert A offers one
interpretation, I would like to offer another. Your interpretation, supported by the evidence that
you think is relevant, becomes your argument.

Sometimes your questions come from problems that emerge from class discussions, but are not
fully resolved. You think: we have gone so far in discussing a poem, but I think additional
interpretations can be made. Those interpretations become your argument.

No matter what position you may take to answer your question, your argument essay will contain
four basic elements:

1. A claim, or the position that you put forth.


2. Evidence, or the details that support your claim.
3. Definition of terms, so that you are your reader share an understanding of the terms that
you use in present your claim and your evidence.
4. Consideration of counter-arguments, or opposing claims, to show your reader why these
are weak and your claim is strong.
Sometimes, the existence of counter-arguments makes students feel uncomfortable: how, they
ask, can they put forth an argument that anyone else has opposed? Here is some advice to
consider when dealing with opposing arguments:

1. What are the most important opposing arguments? What concessions can I make and still
support my own argument?
2. What evidence do I have to support my own argument? How does that evidence compare
with that used by my opposition?
3. What are possible misunderstandings of my own argument?

Testing the strength of your argument:

1. Make sure your presentation is logical. Outlining an essay after you write a first draft
often can help you to test its logic. Write a one sentence summary of the main point of
each paragraph. Do the points follow logically? Would additional discussion of one or
two points strengthen your argument? Do you digress? Should your paragraphs be re-
ordered?
2. Look at your use of evidence. Make sure that when you quote a passage, that quotation is
integrated into the context of your own essay. Do you give the reader enough information
about the quote in the text of your essay so that the quotation is intelligible? Remember,
documenting a quotation in a note is not the same thing as setting the quotation up
correctly in your essay.

Do you interpret the quotation? Do not assume that your reader will draw the same
conclusions from the quotation that you have drawn. Quotations should not substitute for
your own explanations. Quotations are evidence for your own assertions.

Does your introduction and conclusion help the reader to understand the significance of your
argument? Do you answer the "so what" question?

What is an argument?
An argument is, to quote the Monty Python sketch, "a connected series of statements to establish
a definite proposition". There are three stages to an argument: Premises, inference, and
conclusion.

Stage one: Premises


One or more propositions will be are necessary for the argument to continue. They must be
stated explicitly. They are called the premises of the argument. They are the evidence (or
reasons) for accepting the argument and its conclusions.

Premises (or assertions) are often indicated by phrases such as "because", "since", "obviously"
and so on.

(The phrase "obviously" is often viewed with suspicion, as it can be used to intimidate others
into accepting dubious premises. If something doesn't seem obvious to you, don't be afraid to
question it. You can always say "Oh, yes, you're right, it is obvious" when you've heard the
explanation.)

Stage two: Inference

The premises of the argument are used to obtain further propositions. This process is known as
inference. In inference, we start with one or more propositions which have been accepted. We
then derive a new proposition. There are various forms of valid inference.

The propositions arrived at by inference may then be used in further inference. Inference is often
denoted by phrases such as "implies that" or "therefore".

Stage three: Conclusion

Finally, we arrive at the conclusion of the argument, another proposition. The conclusion is often
stated as the final stage of inference. It is affirmed on the basis the original premises, and the
inference from them. Conclusions are often indicated by phrases such as "therefore", "it follows
that", "we conclude" and so on.

Types of argument
There are two traditional types of argument, deductive and inductive. A deductive argument
provides conclusive proof of its conclusions; if the premises are true, the conclusion must also be
true. A deductive argument is either valid or invalid.

A valid argument is defined as one where if the premises are true, then the conclusion is true.

An inductive argument is one where the premises provide some evidence for the truth of the
conclusion. Inductive arguments are not valid or invalid, but we can talk about whether they are
better or worse than other arguments. We can also discuss how probable their premises are.

There are forms of argument in ordinary language which are neither deductive nor inductive.
However, this document concentrates on deductive arguments, as they are often viewed as the
most rigorous and convincing.

Here is an example of a deductive argument:


 Every event has a cause (premise)
 The universe has a beginning (premise)
 All beginnings involve an event (premise)
 This implies that the beginning of the universe involved an event (inference)
 Therefore the universe has a cause (inference and conclusion)

Note that the conclusion of one argument might be a premise in another argument. A proposition
can only be called a premise or a conclusion with respect to a particular argument; the terms do
not make sense in isolation.

Recognizing an argument
Sometimes an argument will not follow the order described above. For instance, the conclusions
might be stated first, and the premises stated afterwards in support of the conclusion. This is
perfectly valid, if sometimes a little confusing.

Arguments are harder to recognize than premises or conclusions. Many people shower their
writing with assertions without ever producing anything which one might reasonably describe as
an argument. Some statements look like arguments, but are not.

For example:

"If the Bible is accurate, Jesus must either have been insane, an evil liar, or the Son of God."
The above is not an argument, it is a conditional statement. It does not assert the premises which
are necessary to support what appears to be its conclusion. (Even if we add the assertions, it still
suffers from a number of other logical flaws -- see the section on this argument in "Alt.Atheism
Frequently Asked Questions".)

Another example:

"God created you; therefore do your duty to God."


The phrase "do your duty to God" is neither true nor false. Therefore it is not a proposition, and
the sentence is not an argument.

Causality is important. Suppose we are trying to argue that there is something wrong with the
engine of a car. Consider two statements of the form "A because B". The first statement:

"My car will not start because there is something wrong with the engine."
The statement is not an argument for there being something wrong with the engine; it is an
explanation of why the car will not start. We are explaining A, using B as the explanation. We
cannot argue from A to B using a statement of the form "A because B".

However, we can argue from B to A using such a statement. Consider:

"There must be something wrong with the engine of my car, because it will not start."
Here we are arguing for A, offering B as evidence. The statement "A because B" is then an
argument.

To make the difference clear, note that "A because B" is equivalent to "B therefore A". The two
statements then become:

"There is something wrong with the engine, therefore my car will not start."
And:
"My car will not start, therefore there is something wrong with the engine."
If we remember that we are supposed to be arguing that there is something wrong with the
engine, it is clear that only the second statement is a valid argument.