Occasions for Argumentative Essays

It shouldn't be surprising to learn that modern argumentation theory has roots in Greek and Roman thinking. After all, we trace our democratic form of government to these cultures, which are also renowned for their achievements in philosophy, the fine arts, and science. In many ways, the Greco-Romans' belief in argument as a way to settle disputes and discover truth is at the heart of all these achievements.

Argumentation is everywhere, not just in congress and courtrooms, but in corporate board rooms, at garden club meetings, and in millions of essays, reports, theses, and dissertations written at colleges and universities throughout the world. The goal of argument is to win acceptance of one's ideas--and to do so in an arena where others, for one reason or another, don't agree. Even wise, honest, good people don't always agree on what is true, fair, or reasonable. That's why argument is important in academic writing, where students try to convince professors and classmates to accept their ideas and where professors argue with each other and with their students.

We argue not because we're angry, but because argumentation causes us to examine our own and others' ideas carefully. It causes us to weigh conflicting claims; to make judgments about the nature of evidence and the procedures of investigation; to state our ideas clearly, accurately, and honestly; and to listen respectfully and critically to other people's ideas.

Arguing in Context

Like other types of writing, arguments respond to specific situations: a need is not being met, a person is being treated unfairly, an important idea is misunderstood, or an outdated policy needs to be reexamined. Arguments are successful when they respond effectively to these writing contexts. Therefore, you'll want to spend some time thinking about the underlying situation that gives rise to your argument.

Preparing a situation statement helps bring the various elements of the writing context into focus early. A situation statement doesn't have to be complicated. Instead, keep it simple and concise, focusing on the interplay of writer, reader, and purpose. Notice how the following situation statement for a projected argument helps to clarify the writer's objectives and to identify the issues and concerns of the people involved:


Purpose: I work as a medical transcriptionist (typist), and some of the people in my office can type quite a bit more than some of the other people. Since we all get paid the same, some employees won't work at full capacity. We feel that we should be paid more for typing more. And since we don't get paid more, we don't push ourselves to type more. This is a big problem with a couple of employees. It has been going on for about two years. I want to argue in favor of setting up an incentive program to reward transcriptionists who type over nine hundred lines a day.

Writer: I know quite a bit about the problem since I am involved. I am one of the employees who won't work as hard as I can. My stake in the outcome would be that I could make more money.

Reader: My reader is my boss at work. She is director of the Medical Records department. She is forty-three years of age and has had at least two years of college to get her Accredited Records Technician (A.R.T.) degree. She was once a sergeant in the Marine Corps, so sometimes she is rough. She is a very moody person. I have worked for Pat for four years. She sees me as dependable and hard working. Pat's stake in the issue would possibly be to find a better or fairer way to pay her employees.

This isn't thorough or exhaustive. Since it precedes the first draft, the writer doesn't yet know what the paper will turn into. Still, the very act of writing a situation statement helps her envision the task ahead.


9.1 Think about situations in your own life that could give rise to an argumentative essay. You may find it helpful to write freely while you think. In any case, your goal is to discover three actual situations in your life that could serve as the basis for an argumentative paper. For each situation, write a brief paragraph like the one below, telling what point you want to make and for whom you are writing.

Now that I'm going to school full time, I don't always have time to cook fancy meals, keep my family's clothes washed and ironed, or take care of household expenses as I used to. This bothers my husband and son. They think I should cut back on school. I want to convince them that they should take on more household responsibilities so that I can continue my education.

9.2 Write a Situation Statement for each argumentative context you discovered in Activity 9.1. The following questions may help you think of what to say. Don't answer questions that aren't relevant to the situation, but do supply any relevant information you think of, even if it isn't covered by one of the questions.

Purpose: What do I hope to accomplish? Why is it important? What benefits would be realized? What problems would be eliminated? What questions would be answered? How would other people be affected? What obstacles must be overcome?

Writer: What are my qualifications for discussing this issue? What is my knowledge of the subject? What are the limits of my knowledge? How can I learn more? What is my personal stake in the argument's outcome? What is my relationship to the reader?

Reader: How well do my reader and I know each other? What is my reader's age, educational background, occupation, marital status, political preference? Why have I chosen to address my argument to this particular person or group? What stake does my reader have in the argument's outcome? What might the reader stand to gain or lose? What is the reader's impression of me, especially of my integrity, knowledge, and reliability? How well does the reader understand the situation?

Stating Your Proposition

Once you sense your argument's scope and direction, you can begin to formulate a clear and precise statement of your central idea. As you do, however, remember that your writing process has barely begun. You're not yet looking for a statement to serve as the foundation of your finished paper, but one to point you forward and help you focus your thinking.

In this respect an argumentative proposition resembles a thesis statement. Besides stating your main idea, both help you direct, develop, and evaluate your thinking while writing. Also, an argumentative proposition, like a thesis statement, should be carefully scrutinized and, when necessary, modified throughout your writing process. At the start, both a thesis and a proposition are usually hunches or good guesses about what your systematic investigations will allow you to claim.

As your paper develops, you may find that your first hunch was slightly off-target. In that case you should modify your proposition to conform with your new understanding. Making a trial statement early and watching for possible improvements helps assure a strong proposition in your final paper.

Even at this point, however, your proposition should define the scope of your argument and make an assertion that's open to debate. A statement like "Some people ruin things for everyone," is weak because it doesn't clearly state what the writer has in mind. It's a vague generalization that provides no direction for writer or reader. If pressed to define the issue more precisely, the writer might come up with a statement like, "A small group of thoughtless fans is putting the school's whole basketball program in jeopardy." Now we know what we're talking about.

Besides defining the argument's scope, your proposition should make a claim that is open to debate. Like a thesis statement, your proposition shouldn't be self-evidently true (asparagus is a vegetable) or claim something that's purely a matter of opinion (asparagus tastes great). It should have an element of uncertainty, yet make a claim that you hope will gain your readers' assent in the end: "Our county agricultural agent should encourage valley farmers to plant more asparagus."


9.3 Read the following sentences and rate them as proposition statements on a scale of 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest). Be prepared to explain why you do or don't think they could work.

a. Money is the root of all evil.

b. The grading system in Biology 101 doesn't accurately reflect the students' intellectual achievements.

c. In these modern times in which we live, corruption in its various forms has a broad impact of major concern.

d. William McKinley was president of the United States from 1897-1901.

e. There's too much government interference and red tape for the average citizen to feel free.

f. Unless the Zoning Appeals Board shows greater flexibility in granting variances, we can expect businesses to locate elsewhere.

g. Nothing beats the fresh taste of milk.

h. With all the litter and debris that people leave there, the alley behind my house is a mess.

i. Someone needs to do something about the situation with regard to housing on this campus.

j. All tips should be placed in a large bowl and divided equally among the waiters who work each shift.

9.4 Write a trial proposition statement to go with each of the three argumentative situations you've been working on. Exchange them with a partner, and discuss their strengths and weaknesses.

Anticipating Opposition

One essential characteristic of argument is your sense of an adversary. You aren't simply explaining a concept to someone who will hear you out and accept or reject your idea on its merit. Argument assumes actual opposition to your proposition. In order to win acceptance, then, you must not only explain and support your proposition, but also anticipate and overcome objections that the opposition might raise.

In anticipating your opposition, consider questions like the following:

To firm up your impressions and get an overview of the opposition's case relative to your own, make a chart like the one below.

Pro and Con Chart

Proposition: The Medical Records department should set up an incentive program that pays all transcriptionists a bonus of ten cents a line for all lines typed over nine hundred a day.
For (Pro) Against (Con)
1. Faster typists would produce more lines. 1. Typists would not do other duties, such as paper work.
2. Faster typists would make more money. 2. Typists would try to type the easier reports.
3. One less transcriptionist would be needed. 3. Typists would do a poorer quality of work.
4. One less 5520 word processing machine would be needed. 4. Slower typists would be mad.
5. Less office space would be needed. 5. Typists could make more money than the boss.
6. One less benefit package would be needed. 6. Other people in the department would be mad.
7. Less overtime would be required.
8. Less sick time would be paid.

Plotting your argument like this provides a balanced view of the issues. It allows you to see whether you have a chance of making your case and helps you to anticipate crucial points that may determine your success or failure.

Don't try to look good by mentioning only weaker opposition arguments. When you work on the con side of the chart, try to see the issue through the eyes of the opposition, and draw out the most telling arguments they could use against you. Then, when you've completed your Pro and Con Chart, look back at your proposition to see if it needs revision. You might also begin thinking about how to refute the opposition's arguments.


9.5 Make a Pro and Con Chart for each of the three arguments you've been developing. Exchange and discuss these with a partner. Which of your three propositions has the best chance of becoming a successful argumentative essay? Which points look most important?

Expanding Your Argument

For now, don't worry about your essay's final structure, but consider expanding and developing the points listed on your Pro and Con Chart. Think in terms of paragraphs, and consider developing each point as though you planned to build a paragraph around it. Some points may require extensive development and support, perhaps in a series of closely related paragraphs. Other points may be easy to grasp and so self-evidently true that they could be grouped together in a single paragraph.

This is a good time to use the discovery methods mentioned in Discovering What to Write. You might also review the methods of paragraph development--examples, explanation, comparison and contrast, facts--discussed in Thesis/Support Essays.

You may already sense that developing paragraphs in support of your proposition will be different from developing paragraphs in opposition to it. That's because when you develop arguments for your proposition, you are confirming; when you develop arguments against your proposition, you are refuting. Both kinds of development are essential. You must show that your own ideas are clear, reasonable, and solid. You must also show how your opposition's case is weak.

Writing paragraphs that confirm or support your proposition is similar to what you've done in the past. Most often you'll state the paragraph's main point in a topic sentence and go on to explain or define key terms, then give specific details that support the topic sentence. Paragraphs refuting the opposition, however, are usually concerned with exploring another person's thinking, especially with pointing out errors of logic and failures of insight. If you can show that your case is strong and the opposition's is weak, chances are excellent that the reader will be on your side at the end--and that's the goal.

Three Argumentative Appeals: Reason, Ethics, Emotion

While there's no infallible formula for winning over every reader in every circumstance, you should learn how and when to use three fundamental argumentative appeals. According to Aristotle, a person who wants to convince another may appeal to that person's reason (logos), ethics (ethos), or emotion (pathos).

If we think of these three appeals as independent and of the writer as choosing just one, however, we miss the point. The writer's job is to weave the various appeals into a single convincing argument. As you continue to expand and develop your ideas, look for ways of combining the three appeals to create a sound, balanced argument.


Much of the clear thinking we do in our everyday lives follows logical principles, but in a less formal and systematic way than the thinking of a research scientist. And for most occasions this informal reasoning is adequate. Aristotle points out that it would be just as much a mistake to expect certain proofs in argument as to expect only probable proofs in mathematics. That's not to say your argument can be illogical, only that you shouldn't confuse formal logic with clear thinking or good sense, the essential qualities your argument should display. Briefly, informal reasoning requires clearly linking your general claims with concrete, specific data.

When our thinking begins with specifics and moves toward a generalization, we say that we are moving inductively. That is, if you were to taste several hard, green apples and then draw the general conclusion that all hard, green apples are sour, you would be using inductive reasoning. And, of course, the more apples tasted and the greater the variation in the times and conditions of tasting, the greater the likelihood that your general conclusion would be valid. In your writing, then, when you reason inductively, ask whether you've examined the evidence carefully, whether it justifies your general conclusion, and whether you've given readers enough specific evidence to persuade them that your thinking is sound and your general conclusion is true.

Reasoning that moves in the opposite direction (from general to specific) is called deductive reasoning. Here, you take a general principle that you know to be true and use it to understand a specific situation. For instance, you may know from experience that as a general rule bad weather reduces business at the golf course. You may also learn that today's weather will be cold and rainy. From these two pieces of knowledge, you can produce a third, more specific piece: Business at the golf course will be slow today. In writing, deductive reasoning most often appears in a shortened version (called an enthymeme) that may be hard to recognize. That's because one or more links in the chain of reason have not been stated directly but only implied. Consider the following example:

Bill never turns in his assignments, so he'll fail the course.

What is not directly stated but only implied is the general principle that students who don't turn in their assignments will fail the course.

Such shortened forms are perfectly acceptable, but only if the underlying links and claims are sound. An opponent may want to refute you by challenging some underlying assumptions in your thinking; likewise, you'll want to look for faulty reasoning when you refute your opposition.


9.6 Read the following statements and comment on their use of informal reasoning. What details would you need to see in order to be convinced? Can you find any unstated assumptions that need to be examined?

a. Coach Ratcliffe should be fired because a coach's job is to win ballgames.

b. I know he's popular because he drives a Corvette.

c. The president hasn't done anything about unemployment, so he has no sympathy for the poor.

d. The Sun Belt continues to be the fastest-growing part of the country.

e. Too much smoking ruins a person's health, so you know Louisa's in bad shape.

f. Today's prisons are practically like country clubs.

g. Because several new schools have been built in the past few years, Chicago has an outstanding school system.

h. Imported cars are higher in quality than American cars.

i. Mr. Price got the contract, so you know he paid a few people off.

j. Arthur Jensen should be elected to the city council because he is a successful real estate developer.

9.7 Look over the following examples, fill in any missing links in the reasoning chain, and comment on the uses of informal logic:

Claim: Coach Ratcliffe should be fired.

Link: A coach's job is to win ballgames.

Data: The team had a 4 and 6 record this year.

They had a 3 and 7 record last year.

They had a 1 and 9 record the previous year.


Claim: Arthur Jensen Should be elected to the City Council.

Link: The best person is the most experienced.

Data: Arthur has served two terms on the council.

His opponent has never been on the council.

Arthur is a successful real estate developer.


Claim: Omaha has an outstanding school system.


Data: The buildings are well-maintained.

Most schools have computers.

Several new schools have been built in the past few years.



Link: Fair grading policies give every student an equal opportunity to succeed.

Data: Pop quizzes in H240 discriminate against students who prefer to cram for tests.

Attendance policies in H240 discriminate against students who must work during class times.

Writing assignments in H240 favor students with access to word processors.


No matter how solid your reasoning, readers may not accept your argument unless they're also convinced that you're a person of wisdom, honesty, and good will. If you misrepresent the evidence, misunderstand the implications of your own value structure, or seek to hurt some individual or group, you can expect to alienate your readers.

The appeal to character is often subtle, affecting readers almost unconsciously, yet often decisively.

"Ah, I see. This writer pretends to be a friend of Mexican-Americans, but her word choice shows that she understands almost nothing of our culture. And her proposal would undermine our whole way of life. Of course, she'd get to build her apartments, and it's obvious that's all she really cares about."

If you realize that readers are likely to analyze your character and intentions this way, you'll see that the best way to put ethical appeal in your writing is to build a strong, healthy relationship with your readers. Convince them that they can trust you to be fair, honest, well-informed, and well-intentioned. Then, having established that trust, don't betray it.


9.8 Letting 10 represent the highest and 1 the lowest, rate the following public figures for their appeal to character. Of course, you'll be considering more than just writing, but the activity should still give you some insight into what ethos is and how it affects credibility. When you've finished, compare your ratings with those of a partner. Discuss the reasons for your scoring.

a. Abraham Lincoln

b. Adolf Hitler

c. Jesse Jackson

d. Jane Fonda

e. Richard M. Nixon

f. Jesse Jackson

g. Ann Landers

h. Jay Leno

i. George Washington

j. Arnold Schwartzenegger


Many people believe that emotional appeals by their very nature subvert reason and therefore are better left to TV hucksters and political candidates than to writers who want their ideas taken seriously. Because this common view has some validity, emotional appeals must be used with restraint and discretion, or they may prove counterproductive. Nevertheless, while an argument founded mostly on feelings and emotions may be superficial and biased, an argument that is carefully reasoned and honestly presented probably won't be hurt by a bit of pathos. In fact, it will probably be helped.

One way to build pathos is to illustrate or dramatize an idea. This may involve little more than folding short descriptive and narrative examples into the argument. Are you arguing that your city needs to take stiffer measures against drunk drivers? Why not find a place to include a description of the face of a child who was injured in an accident caused by drinking? Or you might want to tell the story of a driver who caused several accidents because the individual's license was never revoked. Including such narrative and descriptive passages can help readers feel the urgency of your proposition so that it gets beyond the level of abstract intellectual speculation and becomes a matter of immediate human concern.

Careful word choice also influences an argument's emotional appeal. With this in mind, you might review the discussion of The Best Word in Revising Your Writing. The point here is that the overall emotional texture of your argument is the result of many individual choices about which word to use.

Such choices, even though they must be made one at a time, can't be seen as independent of each other. Their force is cumulative. They communicate how you feel--and by implication think the reader ought to feel--about your subject. If you want the reader to identify with you emotionally, you'll choose words carefully, making sure they're appropriate for you as a writer, for your readers, and for your overall purpose in writing.


9.9 Read the following speech by Mark Anthony from William Shakespeare's play, Julius Caesar. Do you think Mark Anthony is appealing to the emotions of his audience? If so, what is his purpose in doing so? What parts of the speech seem especially designed to appeal to the audience's feelings? Does the speech contain any appeal to reason? To character? Are the various appeals balanced and harmonious or unbalanced and contradictory?

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious;
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest--
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men--
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome,
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

Form: Tradition and Innovation

By now, you've probably amassed many notes and ideas for your argument, but you may be wondering how to sort and organize this material into an essay. The following pattern, which gives the traditional Latin names for each section, may help. Like the thesis/support pattern, it offers a basic structural framework that can be modified for various writing contexts. The essential parts of the pattern include the Introduction, Statement of the Case, Proposition, Refutation, Confirmation, and Conclusion.


(Exordium)--Draw your reader into the argument. Build common ground. Establish your tone and style. Establish your credentials. Clarify why the issue is important. Build ethos. See also the suggestions for Introductions and Conclusions in Thesis/Support Essays.

Statement of the Case

(Narratio)--Tell the story behind the argument. Give any necessary background information. Illuminate the situational context. Clarify the issue. Characterize and define the issue in terms that are favorable to your point of view.

Proposition Statement

(Propositio)--State your central proposition. Present it carefully, much as you would the Thesis in a Thesis/Support Essay.

Perhaps set up expectations by forecasting important subpoints (Divisio)that will be considered.


(Refutatio)--Examine and refute opposition arguments. Wherever possible expose faulty reasoning. The following questions will help you spot some frequent ways in which people violate the basic principles of clear thinking.

1. Does the evidence truly warrant the general conclusions that the writer has drawn?
2. Has all the evidence been considered or only evidence that favors the writer's position?
3. Has the writer considered all the alternatives or oversimplified and reduced them to two or three?
5. Are conclusions ever drawn from questionable generalizations?
6. Are words used clearly, accurately, and honestly?
7. Does the argument depend on emotionally charged language?
8. Does the argument ever suggest that ideas or policies are good or bad simply because they are associated with certain individuals or groups?
9. Does the writer ever argue by comparing one thing to another? If so, is the comparison fair and reasonable?
10. Does the writer try to sweet-talk and flatter the reader?
11. Does the argument suggest that an idea or course of action is good just because everyone else believes or is doing it?

If you apply these questions to the opposition's case, you'll get a good idea of where the reasoning is vulnerable. If necessary, make concessions, but try to offer counter-arguments, e.g. True, no direct correlation has been shown between higher school funding and increased scores on standardized achievement tests, but these tests are only one measure of educational progress. Moreover, they are not designed to measure the achievement of school systems, but of individual students.


(Confirmatio)--Develop and support your own case, much in the manner of a traditional Thesis/Support Essay. Use examples, facts, and statistics to back up your claims. Avoid logical fallacies. Argue from authority, definition, analogy, cause/effect, value, and purpose. Base your appeal primarily on logos.

Once you have a clear vision of the confirmation's main points and supporting details, you can consider a strategy of disclosure. Which point should come first? Which next? Which last? One effective way of ordering the supporting points is to rank them in order of importance and then arrange them as follows:

1. Second most important point
2. Point of lesser importance
3. Point of lesser importance
4. Most important point

Such an arrangement offers two advantages. It places your strongest points in positions of emphasis at the beginning and end of your confirmation. Also, your strongest point coming last, tends to anchor your argument, almost like the anchor person in a tug of war. If you were to lead off with your best point and then run through the rest, you might give the impression of weakness. The reader might feel you were gradually running out of ideas, becoming more and more desperate. However, if your readers are familiar with the subject, they'll see that you have something in reserve, that you've been scoring points steadily and consistently without even going to your real strength. Coming in the last position, that major point will have great emphasis--like the knock-out punch in a boxing match or the ace of trump in a game of bridge.


(Digressio)--If you choose, this is a good time to appear to stray briefly from the main issue into a touching or entertaining anecdote designed to appeal to ethos or pathos.


(Peroration)--Whatever you do, end strongly. Finish with conviction. After all, if you aren't convinced, why should your reader be? You might end with an amplification (ringing conclusion), a review of your main points, a reference to something in your introduction, or a plea for action. You might also invite and facilitate defections from the opposition. Review the suggestions for Introductions and Conclusions in Thesis/Support Essays.

Adapting the Argumentative Pattern

Except for the fact that an introduction by definition demands the first spot and a conclusion the last, other sections can be moved around in a variety of effective ways. If the traditional order--introduction, statement of case, refutation, confirmation, conclusion--doesn't suit your needs, try an alternative.

1. Open with the introduction.
2. Refute the strongest opposition point.
3. State the case.
4. Confirm your proposition.
5. Refute the weaker opposition points.
6. End with the conclusion.

1. Open with the introduction.
2. Offer your proposition as an open question.
3. State the case.
4. Examine and refute the opposition.
5. Examine and confirm your proposition.
6. Conclude that your proposition should be accepted.

1. Open with the introduction.
2. Offer a rival proposition.
3. Offer your own proposition.
4. Confirm your proposition.
5. Refute the opposition.
6. End with the conclusion.

Arguing for Consensus

This type of argument, as developed by Maxine Hairston, draws upon the communication theories of psychologist, Carl Rogers. Unlike traditional argument, it's not based on an adversarial model and doesn't seek to "win" in the traditional sense, though it might be argued that if the argument is successful, everyone wins.

Rogers's Basic Principles--

1. Threat hinders communication. People who feel threatened, tend to shut off communication and stop listening.

2. Strong statements of belief encourage strong opposition from the audience.

3. Threat can be reduced by using neutral, objective language whenever possible.

4. Threat can be reduced by demonstrating an understanding of the reader's point of view.

5. An atmosphere of trust improves the chances for successful communication.

Elements of Rogerian Argument--

1. A brief and objectively phrased statement that defines the issue.

2. A complete and neutrally worded analysis of the other side's position. This should demonstrate that you understand their position and their reasons for holding it.

3. A complete and neutrally worded analysis of the position you hold. You should carefully avoid any suggestion that you are more moral or sensitive than your audience.

4. An analysis of what your positions have in common and what goals and values you share.

5. A proposal for resolving the issue in a way that recognizes the interests of both parties.

As Rogers says, "If you really understand another person in this way, if you are willing to enter his private world and see the way life appears to him, without any attempt to make evaluative judgments, you run the risk of being changed yourself."

Adapted from:

Hairston, Maxine. A Contemporary Rhetoric. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.