NOTES/GUIDE: Argument Writing

NOTES ON ARGUMENT: Primary Support sites: | Writing Argument Essays | UNC Writing Center Handout | OWL on Logic in Argument Essay | Reason and Argument>Philosophy |

The central differences between a persuasive and an argumentative essay are mainly matters of "degree," formality and authoritative evidence. The persuasive essay hopes to convince readers by means of the three classical appeals: pathos, ethos and logos. Argument writing presents the process of appeal to a more formal, even forceful, level of logic which is based primarily on logos: to convince by authority and evidence. While the study of formal logic is a discipline in itself, as writers we can use some of the basic elements of logic to convince by constructing a step-by-step train of thought that leads to one end (if we're successful): an indisputable truth (if such a thing is really possible...). More exactly, a useful definition of argument from Thinking in Writing 3rd Ed, by McQuade and Atwan, is: "In rhetoric, argument is a specific form of discourse, one that attempts to convince an audience that a specific claim or proposition is true wholly because a supporting body of logically related statements is also true" (459).  Another distinction drawn by McQuade and Atwan, between persuasion and argument is that argument is largely, "...a rational appeal to the understanding and persuasion largely as an emotional appeal to the will"(460).  An argument is carefully constructed of clear terms that "add up" only one answer, much as given numbers "add up" to only one possible total. Formal logic and mathematics are very closely related, but in writing almost nothing is quite that "cut and dried." Thinking in somewhat mathematical terms can, however, help in stating a logical "construct."

In argument, there is a simple construction that can guide our process of connecting ideas together logically, and double check the reasoning of the thesis. The Greek name for this structure is a syllogism. It is made of two linked ideas that "add up to" a conclusion (a bit like 4 + 2 = 6). More exactly,  a syllogism is made up of a major premise, a minor premise [that when linked by related terms in that order lead to a necessary conclusion. This particular structure is known as a deductive construct or argument, and is for the most part, the kind of logical progression that this assignment should deal with. 


All dogs[A] are [=] carnivorous [B] Major premise (or general premise/information)

Fido [C] is[=]  a dog [A] .                   Minor premise (or more specific premise/information linked to the previous, by one element: dog)


Fido [C] is [=] carnivorous [B].         Necessary Conclusion (links to elements equated with "dog" in each premise)

We must realize, however, that deductive reasoning may not always be true. Our background knowledge (or given information, evidence, that establishes knowledge) determines whether of not we can accept the conclusion. For instance:

All dogs have 5 legs. (general information we know to be false)

Fido is a dog. (specific information we can accept as true...)

Therefore, Fido has 5 legs. (logically valid necessary conclusion, but because one premise was not true to what we know, this is a false conclusion.)

So, virtually everything depends on the validity of the information we provide as supports that lead readers to our necessary conclusion. That conclusion or sum of our parts/premises is also expressed as the thesis statement, or the claim, assertion, or proposition. As in the persuasive essay, the thesis needs reasons and supports to make the appeal. In an argumentative essay, along with reasons/supports there must also be evidence. As in science or math, the proof must come from some kind of stable, consistent or repeat-ably producible information, that is widely available for further examination. So, authority is often the evidence that can be checked to verify its consistency. Personal experience has fairly valid authority because we tend to believe and accept direct, first-hand knowledge of something, but we will probably be more deeply convinced if the same "finding" is made by a number of others. The durability of the finding or information may depend on many factors which need to be assessed by the writer to assure the necessity of the final conclusion. Again, the weight or quality of the evidence (premises) will be what proves (by reasonable connections) the claim or assertion.  

ORGANIZATION-Argumentative papers can start with the thesis statement/assertion/necessary conclusion and then show/prove that idea (topic+position+rationale) by the reasoning and evidence. Or, papers can start by examining the topic and situation (e.g. Wetlands are in danger.), then develop the argument/claim and evidence that presents the situation and ends with the full necessary conclusion/thesis statement( e.g. Wild wetlands serve as natural water purifiers, and so, must be protected from land development.) Also, including at least one Counter-Claim/Argument (much like refuting an opposing view in persuasion) is a powerful step in enhancing the writer's authority and the compelling quality of the claim/argument. A basic deductive syllogism can frame the counter-argument, as well. The more counter claims you can refute with reason and evidence, the more effective your claim. Including the main counter-claim in your thesis by using "though it is not widely known..." or "Even though cost has been an obstacle...." is the best way to form an argumentative thesis/claim.

Using a syllogism to check deductive reasoning (before counter-claim): Wetlands are crucial because they purify water naturally and insure a healthy environment.

Pure water is crucial for a healthy environment.  << General/major premise
Wetlands purify water, naturally.   << More specific/minor premise


Wetlands are crucial for a healthy environment.  

<< Necessary Conclusion/core idea of thesis  statement/claim and title.  

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