58 Putting It All Together: Basic Elements of an Argument Essay

Joel Gladd

The previous chapters on argumentation offered different models for thinking about what it means to make an argument. Toulmin’s method is deeply analytical, and it requires that a student become familiar with many technical terms. The Rogerian model, on the other hand, feels very conversational, almost intuitive.

In higher education, it’s rare (but not impossible) that a student will be asked to use a single model of argumentation. Depending on the assignment, the course, and your instructor, you might be expected to deploy certain conversational techniques that feel more at home in the Rogerian model, while also defending claims and articulating warrants that rely on Toulmin’s framework. It helps to become familiar with all of them.

The purpose of this chapter is to offer a comprehensive method for developing an argument, based largely on the classical Aristotelian model, but also pulling in strategies from Toulmin, Roger, and other influences, as well as many different articles and writing textbooks. Most academic persuasive/argumentative essay assignments will expect students to include these elements, to some degree.

I. Begin with issue-based questions

Arguments begin with identifying a problem or issue that needs to be addressed, often phrased as a question. In rhetoric, we might consider the question the exigence, an issue that demands a timely response. Sometimes your instructor will give you the question; in other cases you will be expected to develop your own research question. Though vitally important, explicit research questions are sometimes not stated in essays or term papers, but they are usually stated in reports of original studies, such as theses, dissertations, and journal articles.

As Writing Arguments  and other composition textbooks suggest, it’s important to distinguish between “information questions” (or fact-based questions) and “issue questions.” An information question  is a fact-finding mission that’s  more suitable for essay reports and other forms of expository writing. An issue question, by contrast, ultimately requires the writer to take a stance on something that can be debated.

Information question: “What’s a soda tax?”

Issue question: “In order to curb the obesity epidemic, should soda be taxed?”

The information question above can be quickly answered by a few google searches. The second, which includes the word should, is open-ended and can be endlessly debated.

The distinction between open-ended and fact-based questions isn’t always so clear-cut. Sometimes a researcher will begin with an information-based question and soon discover that answering it requires so much analysis that it can be easily debated. For example, a little bit of research shows that the question “Is there an obesity epidemic in the U.S.?” has a straightforward answer (the consensus is yes), but when asking the follow-up question, “What is causing the obesity epidemic?”, you’ll find a wide variety of responses. Figuring out the cause is presumably factual, but asking questions about causation with population-level trends is going to touch on so much data and information that any cogent response will require significant prioritizing and analysis on the part of the researcher, and the results will disagree with other interpretations that chose different kinds of prioritizing and analysis. Since a response to this particular question leads to a debate, it’s suitable for argumentation.

II. Formulate strong claims

A claim is your response to the issue. Depending on the rigor of the assignment and expectations of the course, a claim can be brainstormed rather quickly, or, in research-intensive writing courses, it might require weeks or months of labor. It’s the conclusion you come to after you’ve brainstormed the issue, done the research, analyzed the data, and arrived at a conclusion. It’s a statement expressed in an assertive way.

bad example of a claim: In this paper, I will focus on attempts to tax soda.”

example claim: “Soda should not be taxed.”

Word like “should” often appear in claims and they indicate that the statement is open to debate. It’s not a factual claim, although it should be based on factual evidence.

III. Prove a claim with Reasoning and Evidence

Academic arguments are organized around strictly logical frameworks, which means any opinion or belief must be supported; or, in other words, it must be proved. The difference between informal debates with family, friends, and acquaintances and the more formal debates in academia is largely due to the more rigorous expectations surrounding what it means to actually prove a claim. The proof is the logical core of the argument, what most readers within your audience will likely accept as convincing.

Here, the what it means to support an argument will be broken down into two main elements: reasoning and evidence.

Reasoning

When staking a claim, a writer must respond to the question, “but why?” Reasons are answers to hypothetical challenges:

Debate: “Should soda be taxed?”

Claim: “Yes, soda should be taxed.”

Hypothetical challenge: “But why?”

Response to the hypothetical challenge (Reasoning): “Well, for starters, taxing soda would reduce the amount of sugar the average citizen consumes.reason 1 Secondly, revenue from a soda tax could be used to fight the obesity epidemic.”reason 2

The last part above, the Reasoning, is often the bulk of an academic persuasive essay. It’s the writer’s attempt to prove to the reader their claim is valid. As Booth, et al explain in The Craft of Research, the main points of a persuasive academic essay can often be joined to the overarching claim with the word because:

TV violence can have harmful psychological effects on childrenclaim because those exposed to lots of it tend to adopt the values of what the see.reason

In their chapter, “Making Good Arguments,” Booth, et al suggest it’s helpful to keep in mind that the term claim can both refer to the broader thesis statement the writer is attempting to support and any sub-claim within the essay that needs proved with additional reasoning. What makes a something a reason is that it attempts to support a claim, regardless of whether that claim is the one found in the introduction or in the body of the essay. A heavily researched persuasive essay will have a single thesis statement, but many sub-claims that are in turn proved by separate reasons. This ongoing connection between claim, sub-claim, and reason is important to keep in mind when structuring your essay. A very basic assignment might expect a fairly simple proof, backed by only one reason. A more complex assignment might ask the student to generate a variety of reasons from a given set of courses. An even more complex assignment might ask a student to do original research that requires them to explore several layers of claims and sub-claims.

Simple proof

  • Claim
    • Reason

More complex proof

  • Claim
    • Reason 1
    • Reason 2

Complex proof, with sub-claims

  • Claim
    • Sub-Claim 1
      • Reason 1
      • Reason 1
    • Sub-Claim 2
      • Reason 1
      • Reason 2

The example above, concerning the soda tax debate, would be considered a fairly simple proof:

Claim: Soda should be taxed.

Reason 1: Taxing soda would reduce the amount of sugar the average citizen consumes.

Reason 2: Revenue from a soda tax could be used to fight the obesity epidemic.

The first reason above, “Taxing soda would reduce the amount of sugar,” is compelling only if audience also accepts the unstated belief that it’s fair  to achieve lower levels in a somewhat brute force manner. Focusing on unstated beliefs or implied premises is what Toulmin terms a warrant. Articulating warrants help the writer practice analysis, which is a separate section touched on below.

Evidence

If reasoning  proves a claim, then evidence proves the reasoning. The evidence provides the foundation upon which the entire argument rests. This is why it’s sometimes called the  ground in classical rhetoric (in Toulmin’s scheme, it’s termed backing). Since the role of evidence is to put all questions to rest, it’s often something concrete, such as facts or data that most readers would find convincing. In a criminal case, for example, a prosecutor might point to fingerprints as proof (as evidence) that the defendant can be placed at the crime scene (support/reason), and this presence at the crime scene supports the broader conclusion that the defendant is guilty of the crime (claim). For the case to be successfully prosecuted, the prosecutor needs enough forensics.

When constructing arguments from research in an academic situation, it’s unlikely a writer will rely on literal forensic evidence to support the reasoning and claim. Instead, academic writers tend to use a variety of research methods to persuade their audience. Let’s look at an example:

Issue/debate: How should local governments respond to the rising obesity epidemic? Some advocate taxing sugary drinks, especially sodas; but consumer advocates argue a tax would infringe on the rights of consumers and corporations.

Claim: In response to the obesity epidemic, municipal governments should tax sodas.

Support (Reasoning with Evidence): Taxing soda would reduce the amount of sugar consumed by the average citizen.reason A prime example of this can be seen in a case study from 2016 that showed a city in California successfully reduced the average sugar consumption of each citizen after implementing a soda tax.evidence

The evidence for the reason above gives something to satisfy the reader’s skepticism. This particular evidence is a case study, an experiment conducted by researches to test a hypothesis, then published in an peer-reviewed journal. Research like this is often treated as a persuasive form of evidence in academic communities.

What counts as evidence will vary depending on the discipline and situation. In a literature course, passages from a novel are usually key evidence. In a psychology class, on the other hand, case studies are typically evidence. As you develop your research-supported essay, consider not only what types of evidence might support your ideas but also what types of evidence will be considered valid or credible according to the academic discipline or academic audience for which you are writing.

Evidence in the Humanities: Literature, Art, Film, Music, Philosophy

  • Scholarly essays that analyze original works
  • Details from an image, a film, or other work of art
  • Passages from a musical composition
  • Passages of text, including poetry

Evidence in the Humanities: History

  • Primary Sources (photos, letters, maps, official documents, etc.)
  • Other books or articles that interpret primary sources or other evidence.

Evidence in the Social Sciences: Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, Anthropology

  • Books or articles that interpret data and results from other people’s original experiments or studies.
  • Results from one’s own field research (including interviews, surveys, observations, etc.)
  • Data from one’s own experiments
  • Statistics derived from large studies

Evidence in the Sciences: Biology, Chemistry, Physics

  • Data from the author of the paper’s own experiments
  • Books or articles that interpret data and results from other people’s original experiments or studies.

What remains consistent no matter the discipline in which you are writing, however, is that “evidence” never speaks for itself—you must integrate it into your own argument or claim and demonstrate that the evidence supports your thesis. In addition, be alert to evidence that seems to contradict your claims or offers a counterargument to it: rebutting that counterargument can be powerful evidence for your claim. You can also make evidence that isn’t there an integral part of your argument, too. If you can’t find the evidence you think you need, ask yourself why it seems to be lacking, or if its absence adds a new dimension to your thinking about the topic. Remember, evidence is not the piling up of facts or quotes: evidence is only one component of a strong, well supported, well argued, and well written composition. For more tips with integration information in a research-based persuasive essay, see the section, “Writing With Sources.”

Failures in evidence occur when a reader says, “I do not accept your evidence.” Here is why that might happen:

  • The evidence that you have provided is inaccurate: You’ve misread information or misquoted; you are not interpreting the quoted material in an accurate manner
  • The evidence that you have provided is insufficient: You are using just a small piece of evidence to support your reasoning. You need more. You probably have a “generalization” fallacy.
  • The evidence that you have provided is unrelated to the reason: Your evidence does not clearly or directly relate to the point that you are trying to make.
  • The evidence that you have provided is incomplete or too narrowly chosen: You have “cherry picked” certain examples or pieces of information to the exclusion of others, so while you do have evidence to support your point, you are also neglecting a lot of other information
  • The evidence that you have provided is old: The information that you are citing is not relevant anymore. It is outdated!
  • The evidence that you have provided does not come from an authoritative source: The source of your evidence is not credible; the person being cited is not an authority on the topic.

IV. Analyze and discuss the evidence

Composition students often get feedback that includes phrases like, “more analysis!”, or “discuss the evidence!”. These comments are sometimes confusing for students who initially assume that simply presenting enough reasoning and evidence is enough to prove a claim. It’s often unclear what the term analysis actually refers to.

Let’s look again at one of the examples above, concerning the soda tax debate:

Claim: Soda should be taxed.

Reason: Taxing soda would reduce the amount of sugar the average citizen consumes.

Evidence (Grounds): A prime example of this can be seen in a case study from 2016 that showed a city in California successfully reduced the average sugar consumption of each citizen after implementing a soda tax.

This structure has the core elements of an argument: a strong and assertive claim, followed by reasoning, which in turn is grounded in specific evidence. Each element seems fairly straightforward. What more is there to discuss?

Discuss the warrant

One area that’s ripe for the discussion is the extent to which the reasoning takes for granted certain values. Rather than simply educating the citizenry in the risks associated with consuming a lot of sugar, a sugar tax moves beyond that step and expects consumers to either reduce their consumption or pay the price. It adds a penalty to a certain behavior, and this kind of policy-enforcement might be interpreted as paternalistic by someone who’s concerned about the encroachment of “big government.” With this skeptical reader in mind, the writer might slow down when proving their point in order to articulate the implied premise, or warrant, that using tax policy to encourage healthier habits is ethically and political sound.

Here’s another version of the proof above, now with the warrant expressed:

Claim: Soda should be taxed.

Reason: Taxing soda would reduce the amount of sugar the average citizen consumes.

Evidence (Grounds): A prime example of this can be seen in a case study from 2016 that showed a city in California successfully reduced the average sugar consumption of each citizen after implementing a soda tax.

Warrant: It’s justifiable to use tax policy to encourage healthy eating habits.

Bringing the warrant to the surface is considered one form of analysis because it closely interrogates a piece of the argument, uncovering another potential layer of discussion. If the writer thinks the audience will readily accept the belief (that it’s ok to use tax policies in this way), they can move forward. However, anticipating objections from the audience is a sign of self-awareness and critical thinking, a type of ethos, so articulating and discussing warrants can have a two-fold effect: making your case more solid (logos) and convincing the reader you’re a careful thinker (ethos).

Add backing to the warrant

Depending on how controversial or complex the warrant is, it might be helpful to spend some time making your case that the warrant is actually valid. When proving a warrant, use the same strategies as you would for any other point in the essay—offer  reasoning and evidence.

In the soda tax example, one way to back the warrant is by pointing out that local and federal governments in the U.S. have long used tax policy to encourage healthy behaviors. Formerly known as “sin taxes,” these tax policies leverage the power of governments to make certain items more expensive (through taxes) to encourage the behavior most of its citizens want for themselves. An alcohol tax was first introduced in the 1790s; then, more recently, tobacco has been heavily taxed in order to bring down cancer rates.

Claim: Soda should be taxed.

Reason: Taxing soda would reduce the amount of sugar the average citizen consumes.

Evidence (Grounds): A prime example of this can be seen in a case study from 2016 that showed a city in California successfully reduced the average sugar consumption of each citizen after implementing a soda tax.

Warrant: It’s justifiable to use tax policy to encourage healthy eating habits.

Backing for the warrant: “Sin taxes” have been used throughout U.S. history to encourage healthy behavior.

This process of tracking down implied beliefs and then backing them can go on endlessly. That’s part of the reason why some topics deserve 20-30 page articles, or even book-length critical engagement. When do you know when to stop? Warrants and backing for them should be supplied for the audience. As the writer anticipates objections to their reasoning, warrants will come to the surface; but, as you interrogate them closely, it’s important to also think and write with the audience in mind, and also to look for feedback from peers. Many (in fact most) beliefs don’t need to be stated or backed, depending on how knowledgeable, specialized, and formal the intended audience is.

Make connections

Another way to analyze and discuss evidence is by connecting it with other pieces of evidence. If evidence never speaks for itself, it is also rarely isolated. The most convincing grounds or backing have layers of example.

Connecting evidence with concrete examples, especially personal ones, is an especially powerful way to bring home a point. When an evidence-based point (logos) is clearly illustrated with something personal and relatable, the writer/speaker can tap into the emotional reservoirs of their audience (pathos).

Justify your evidence

Yet another way to discuss evidence is to use “meta” language that explains to a skeptical reader why your evidence is actually valid. Case studies have different methodologies, for example, and a skeptical reader might wonder about the sample size. A keen writer could anticipate these attempts to undermine evidence by discussing whether a source is convincing or authoritative. This kind of discussion surrounding the authority and trustworthiness of the writer’s sources also helps establish ethos.

Paraphrase!

Sometimes, simply paraphrasing key ideas and points from a source can serve as a form of discussion. Rephrasing important ideas in your own words is also an important integration technique, and it contributes to the cohesive feel of your essay. After including key quotes from an expert, for example, you can follow up with: “In other words…,” or “What this means is…”

V. Offer counterarguments and rebuttals

The section on warrants, mentioned above, suggests that anticipating the reader’s objections shapes how certain parts of the essay are written. Part of what separates academic essays from more informal persuasive situations is how intensely writers are expected to consider other arguments and probable objections. As the Rogerian model from the previous chapter shows, academic argumentation is fundamentally conversational.

The conversation can begin with the introduction. Do any of your sources not agree with your thesis? Does any of the research disagree with any of the supporting claims (the reasoning)? Opening with an ongoing conversation can also help provide context for the claim, which is covered below. 

When supporting your thesis, put yourself in your readers’ shoes. What might they not find logical in your argument? Toulmin’s terminology (claim, grounds, warrant, backing) can be helpful for critically analyzing your own ideas, as the section on warrants above shows. 

How solid is the evidence? Would some readers poke holes in it?

One of the following chapters in this Part will offer more suggestions for how to craft counterarguments and rebuttals. In addition, it will be helpful to review the section, Writing With Sources.

VI. Provide context and define key terms

When defending your claim, you will need to place your topic (and argument) in 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.

Kairotic appeals

One reason context is so important is that it helps persuade the reader your claim is timely and appropriate to a present matter of concern. The timelines of an argument is its kairos. Providing sufficient background information that pinpoints an urgent issue and conversation adds kairotic appeal. This kind of context should appear before introducing your claim—whenever possible, the claim should sound like it’s deeply enmeshed in the moment, pitched at just the right time.

Definitions

One of the most important contextual pieces of information a writer can provide is to carefully define certain terms of ideas that play a key role in the argument. Part of what makes an argument so experimental is that many of the key terms (words) a writer uses are slippery. Words like “freedom,” “progress,” and “happiness” often appear in many casual arguments, but all of those words are heatedly disputed. These linguistic disputes are why good speakers and writers take their time clarifying key terms that play an important role in their argument.

Consider the debate over free speech in higher education. Most Universities state their commitment to free speech. It’s often in the student handbook. However, many student handbooks also state their commitment to learning and providing a safe and secure environment for that to happen. This second commitment sometimes operates in tension with free speech, which doesn’t care about truth, learning, or the interests of the institution. Google “free speech in higher education” and you’ll see a ton of news articles debating this issue.

In “Free Speech Is Not an Academic Value,” Stanley Fish takes the controversial stance that public universities should not value free speech above all other concerns. How does he support his opinion? He points to court decisions that distinguish between “speech on a matter of public concern and speech that is personal or internal to the operations of the unit.” Fish continues, “If the speech at issue falls under the first category, it is constitutionally protected; if it falls under the second, it can be regulated in the same way any employer can regulate speech that disrupts the core business of the workplace.”

From this distinction, he suggests that free speech is protected only when it’s nonacademic. When it’s academic speech, the interests of the institution (the learning outcomes for that class, the objectives of the campus as a whole, etc.) are paramount, and the foundational principle of higher education is “free inquiry” towards the truth. In the classroom and in other academic-related activities, campuses care most about “getting a matter of fact right,” and expressing oneself is secondary to that concern. Controversial indeed! 

Notice how Fish deftly uses authoritative definitions to help move forward his argument. He mentions previous court decisions (historical evidence) in order to justify his definition of free speech vs. academic speech. This careful parsing of certain terms is crucial for Fish’s position. It allows him to make the point that arguments related to free speech in higher education must pay close attention to what “speech” actually refers to: speech related to the public interest vs. speech internal to the institution. Only after identifying the different kinds of speech can he then support his broader claim.

In academic situations, persuasive writers are upfront and transparent about their definitions. If an important term is employed throughout your essay, it’s often good practiced to define it near the beginning, or whenever that term first appears.

Exercise

Most of this chapter is original content, but some of the parts above are taken  from Ohio State University’s Choosing & Using Sources, Chapter 9, CC-BY 4.0.

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Write What Matters by Joel Gladd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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