23 What Is Argument?

Kirsten DeVries and Christina Frasier

Learning Objectives:

  • Identify arguments in daily life
  • Differentiate argumentation from controversy, opinion, thesis, and fact
  • Differentiate between in implicit and explicit arguments
  • Identify the connection between argumentation and rhetoric

All people, including you, make arguments on a regular basis.  When you make a claim and then support the claim with reasons, you are making an argument. Consider the following:

  • If, as a teenager, you ever made a case for borrowing a parent’s car using reasonable support—a track record of responsibility in other areas of your life, a good rating from your driving instructor, and promises to follow rules of driving conduct laid out by your parents—you have made an argument.
  • If, as an employee, you ever persuaded your boss to give you a raise using concrete evidence—records of sales increases in your sector, a work calendar with no missed days, and personal testimonials from satisfied customers—you have made an argument.
  • If, as a gardener, you ever shared your crops at a farmer’s market, declaring that your produce is better than others using relevant support—because you used the most appropriate soil, water level, and growing time for each crop—you’ve made an argument.
  • If, as a literature student, you ever wrote an essay on your interpretation of a poem—defending your ideas with examples from the text and logical explanations for how those examples demonstrate your interpretation—you have made an argument.

Before moving to the specific parts and vocabulary of argument, it will be helpful to consider some further ideas about what argument is and is not.

Argument vs. Controversy or Fight

Consumers of written texts are often tempted to divide writing into two categories: argumentative and non-argumentative. According to this view, to be argumentative, writing must have the following qualities: It has to defend a position in a debate between two or more opposing sides, it must be on a controversial topic, and the goal of such writing must be to prove the correctness of one point of view over another.

A related definition of argument implies a confrontation, a clash of opinions and personalities, or just a plain verbal fight. It implies a winner and a loser, a right side and a wrong one. Because of this understanding of the word “argument,” many students think the only type of argument writing is the debate-like position paper, in which the author defends his or her point of view against other, usually opposing, points of view.

These two characteristics of argument—as controversial and as a fight—limit the definition because arguments come in different disguises, from hidden to subtle to commanding. It is useful to look at the term “argument” in a new way. What if we think of argument as an opportunity for conversation, for sharing with others our point of view on an issue, for showing others our perspective of the world? What if we think of argument as an opportunity to connect with the points of view of others rather than defeating those points of view?

One community that values argument as a type of communication and exchange is the community of scholars.  They advance their arguments to share research and new ways of thinking about topics.  Biologists, for example, do not gather data and write up analyses of the results because they wish to fight with other biologists, even if they disagree with the ideas of other biologists.  They wish to share their discoveries and get feedback on their ideas.  When historians put forth an argument, they do so often while building on the arguments of other historians who came before them.  Literature scholars publish their interpretations of different works of literature to enhance understanding and share new views, not necessarily to have one interpretation replace all others.  There may be debates within any field of study, but those debates can be healthy and constructive if they mean even more scholars come together to explore the ideas involved in those debates.  Thus, be prepared for your college instructors to have a much broader view of argument than a mere fight over a controversial topic.

Argument vs. Opinion

Argument is often confused with opinion. Indeed, arguments and opinions sound alike. Someone with an opinion asserts a claim that he thinks is true. Someone with an argument asserts a claim that she thinks is true. Although arguments and opinions do sound the same, there are two important differences:

  1. Arguments have rules; opinions do not. In other words, to form an argument, you must consider whether the argument is reasonable. Is it worth making? Is it valid?  Is it sound? Do all of its parts fit together logically? Opinions, on the other hand, have no rules, and anyone asserting an opinion need not think it through for it to count as one; however, it will not count as an argument.
  2. Arguments have support; opinions do not. If you make a claim and then stop, as if the claim itself were enough to demonstrate its truthfulness, you have asserted an opinion only. An argument must be supported, and the support of an argument has its own rules. The support must also be reasonable, relevant, and sufficient.

Argument vs. Thesis

Another point of confusion is the difference between an argument and an essay’s thesis. For college essays, there is no essential difference between an argument and a thesis; most professors use these terms interchangeably. An argument is a claim that you must then support. The main claim of an essay is the point of the essay and provides the purpose for the essay. Thus, the main claim of an essay is also the thesis.

Consider this as well: Most formal essays center upon one main claim (the thesis) but then support that main claim with supporting evidence and arguments. The topic sentence of a body paragraph can be another type of argument, though a supporting one, and, hence, a narrower one. Try not to be confused when instructors call both the thesis and topic sentences arguments.  They are not wrong because arguments come in different forms; some claims are broad enough to be broken down into a number of supporting arguments.  Many longer essays are structured by the smaller arguments that are a part of and support the main argument.  Sometimes professors, when they say supporting points or supporting arguments, mean the reasons (premises) for the main claim (conclusion) you make in an essay.  If a claim has a number of reasons, those reasons will form the support structure for the essay, and each reason will be the basis for the topic sentence of its body paragraph.

Argument vs. Fact

Arguments are also commonly mistaken for statements of fact. This comes about because often people privilege facts over opinions, even as they defend the right to have opinions.  In other words, facts are “good,” and opinions are “bad,” or if not exactly bad, then fuzzy and thus easy to reject. However, remember the important distinction between an argument and an opinion stated above: While argument may sound like an opinion, the two are not the same. An opinion is an assertion, but it is left to stand alone with little to no reasoning or support. An argument is much stronger because it includes and demonstrates reasons and support for its claim.

As for mistaking a fact for an argument, keep this important distinction in mind: An argument must be arguable. In everyday life, arguable is often a synonym for doubtful.  For an argument, though, arguable means that it is worth arguing, that it has a range of possible answers, angles, or perspectives: It is an answer, angle, or perspective with which a reasonable person might disagree. Facts, by virtue of being facts, are not arguable. Facts are statements that can be definitely proven using objective data. The statement that is a fact is absolutely valid. In other words, the statement can be pronounced as definitively true or definitively false. For example, 2 + 2 = 4. This expression identifies a verifiably true statement, or a fact, because it can be proved with objective data. When a fact is established, there is no other side, and there should be no disagreement.

Explicit vs. Implicit Arguments

Arguments can be both explicit and implicit. Explicit arguments contain prominent and definable thesis statements and multiple specific proofs to support them. This is common in academic writing from scholars of all fields.  Implicit arguments, on the other hand, work by weaving together facts and narratives, logic and emotion, personal experiences and statistics. Unlike explicit arguments, implicit ones do not have a one-sentence thesis statement. Implicit arguments involve evidence of many different kinds to build and convey their point of view to their audience. Both types use rhetoric, logic, and support to create effective arguments.

Argument and Rhetoric

An argument in written form involves making choices, and knowing the principles of rhetoric allows a writer to make informed choices about various aspects of the writing process. Every act of writing takes place in a specific rhetorical situation, which was discussed in the earlier chapters “Understanding the Means of Persuasion” and “Analyzing the Rhetorical Situation.”  To review, the most basic and important components of a rhetorical situation are

  • Author of the text.
  • Purpose of the text.
  • Intended audience (i.e., those the author imagines will be reading the text).
  • Form or type of text (we often call this genre, as discussed in the chapter “Considering Genre in Writing”).

These components give readers a way to analyze a text on first encounter.  These factors also help writers select their topics, arrange their material, and make other important decisions about the argument they will make and the support they will need.

Adapted from Let’s Get Writing! by Elizabeth Browning; Kirsten DeVries; Kathy Boylan; Jenifer Kurtz; and Katelyn Burton, CC BY-SA 4.0 


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

What Is Argument? Copyright © by Kirsten DeVries and Christina Frasier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book