What is an argument?
An argument is a claim or assertion that is supported by evidence of one kind or another; while ‘argument’ can refer to children (or adults!) bickering and fighting, the term is used in academic contexts to discuss a piece of writing that stakes out a position, offers reasons for that position, and defends itself logically from counterpoints.
When might you write an argument?
Arguably, argument is one of the most common forms of writing in academia: anytime you are trying to support a claim or defend a position that is not immediately apparent or that others might disagree with, you are writing an argument. Importantly, this means that many of the arguments we make are technical arguments (even if we don’t use that word to describe them)!
One easy example is to think of an argumentative essay where you are trying to defend a particular position; over the course of several paragraphs or pages, you explain the details of your position and offer evidence for its truth. Ideally, if your reader understands your line of thinking at the end of your paper, they will agree with your conclusion.
But imagine that you get a parking ticket that you don’t deserve (perhaps you paid the parking fee, but the meter reader’s computer didn’t register your transaction). When you go to explain that you don’t want to pay the ticket, you’ll also make an argument in support of your innocence. The claim here is “I did not deserve this parking ticket,” and the evidence you can give is something like “I paid the parking fee properly” (and, hopefully, you have the payment receipt to prove this fact!). This doesn’t require anger or shouting (like we might stereotypically associate with arguing children), but is simply a matter of explaining why your belief in your innocence is logically correct.
Indeed, because so much of academic life involves sharing information and defending interpretations of ideas, arguments defending different positions comprise a significant amount of academic interactions.
How Might You Write an Argument?
There are at least two basic forms that arguments take in academic writing: a formal construction of premises that lead to a conclusion and the informal development of evidence and argumentation in prose. One thing that both styles of argument have in common, though, is the thesis statement: the basic claim that you are attempting to prove (or argue) with your argument. Developing a clear, relatively short thesis statement that captures the essential elements of what you want to convince your audience is true is an important step to writing an argument.
The other thing that all arguments require is evidence or reasons to believe that the thesis statement you’re defending is true. This can take the form of quantitative data (like measurements or statistics), qualitative reports (like first-hand accounts, experiential descriptions, or references to authorities on the topic), and logical connections. Regarding that last one: if, for example, you are (for some reason) trying to prove that Lebron James cannot fly, you could demonstrate that no humans can fly (and then, because Lebron James is a human, it is logically entailed that Lebron James is one of those humans who cannot fly).
Formal arguments offer the evidence for your thesis statement as numbered premises that lead to a conclusion; the thesis statement is the conclusion (or final item on the number list). Here’s an example:
- No human beings can fly.
- Lebron James is a human being.
- Therefore, Lebron James cannot fly.
Items (1) and (2) are premises (or pieces of evidence that we know to be true) and item (3) is the conclusion (or the thesis statement that the argument is trying to prove).
More commonly, arguments flow informally through conversation and prose (rather than being structured as formal premises that lead to a conclusion). In these cases (and particularly in argumentative essays) it is often helpful to specify your thesis statement as clearly and quickly as possible — often in the first paragraph of your paper.
After your audience understands what your position is (because they have heard your thesis statement), you can provide them with the various pieces of evidence and other relevant points (like logical connections) to help demonstrate why this thesis is true. While there can be an element of persuasion to this kind of writing, the emphasis is on the truth of the thesis, so the strength of the evidence, the clarity of the relevant logical connections, and the audience’s rational obligation to believe the truth is always the focus of an argument.
Counter-Arguments? Finally, in many cases it is helpful to address potential counterpoints to your thesis statement, particularly with informal arguments. While you should always remain committed to the truth of your thesis statement, it is often helpful to explain where and how people with other perspectives might disagree with your conclusions (and, furthermore, why your point is nevertheless correct).
By fairly representing your interlocutors and preemptively rebutting their critiques of your thesis, you can both clarify your own position and demonstrate that you have done your due diligence to consider other possible options before selecting the position that you have chosen to defend.
Writing Studio Consultant