How to Build a Strong Argument

In the spirit of improving my debating skills (both written and oral) I’m setting out on a short project to learn, re-familiarize, and remind myself to build sound arguments. Of all the tutorials on doing this I’ve found, I like this one from Purdue the most, and I’ll be using it to construct this short primer that I’ll probably end up converting to a study article.

Let’s start with philosophypages’ definition of an argument:

An argument is a set of two or more propositions related to each other in such a way that all but one of them (the premises) are supposed to provide support for the remaining one (the conclusion).

And then some definitions:

  • logic: the study of the distinction between correct and incorrect reasoning
  • proposition: a statement that is declared by a declarative statement that can either be true or false. Also commonly referred to as a claim
  • premise: a statement whos truth is used to infer that of others. Think of this as a building block for an argument, or a link in a chain with the last link being your conclusion
  • inference: the relationship that holds between the premises and the conclusion of a logical argument, or the process of drawing a conclusion from premises that support it deductively or inductively
  • conclusion: a proposition whose truth has been inferred on the basis of other propositions assembled with it in a logical argument

The transition or movement from premises to conclusion, the logical connection between them, is the inference upon which the argument relies.1

There are two main types of argument: deductive, and inductive. I like about.com’s explanation of the two:2

A deductive argument is one in which it is impossible for the premises to be true but the conclusion false. Thus, the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises and inferences. In this way, it is supposed to be a definitive proof of the truth of the claim (conclusion). Here is a classic example:

Or, in other words: the truth of the premises is supposed to guarantee the truth of the conclusion.

  1. All men are mortal. (premise)
  2. Socrates was a man. (premise)
  3. Socrates was mortal. (conclusion)
An inductive argument is one in which the premises are supposed to support the conclusion in such a way that if the premises are true, it is improbable that the conclusion would be false. Thus, the conclusion follows probably from the premises and inferences. Here is an example:

Or in other words: the truth of the premises merely makes it probable that the conclusion is true.

  1. Socrates was Greek. (premise)
  2. Most Greeks eat fish. (premise)
  3. Socrates ate fish. (conclusion)

Basic Structure

First, a definition:

An argument involves the process of establishing a claim and then proving it with the use of logical reasoning, examples, and research.

Which gets organized like so:

  • Title
  • Introduction
    • Thesis statement
  • Body Paragraphs
    • Constructing Topic Sentences
    • Building Main Points
    • Countering the Opposition
  • Conclusion

Title

Just as with any writing, it’s important to make a first impression. For an argument that has a form appropriate for the use of title (formal oral or written), this is the opportunity to make that first impression.

  • Puns
  • Humor
  • Using words or examples from the main argument to be found later
  • Asking a question
  • Avoid clichés
  • Don’t be boring

Introduction

The key with the intro is to smoothly slide into your argument while appearing to entertain–unless of course you’re doing some sort of strict or formal deal, at which point you can take the line of, “in this argument I intend to show”, etc. etc. But most arguments don’t happen in this fashion, so I’m going to cover the natural form.

Consider these as openers:

  • personal anecdote
  • a nifty quote
  • shocking stats (the more solid the better, of course)
  • an image that will prompt a reaction
  • a question

Regardless of how you set it up, the main point is to blend naturally into your main argument, which is defined by your thesis statement.

Your Thesis

This statement basically frames the entire argument. It’s critical that you are very careful with it, as you will be defending it for the rest of the talk, paper, debate, etc.

The thesis is what you are trying to convince the readers/listeners of. It is not a fact; it’s a proposition (also known as “declarative sentence”) that has to be proven by your forthcoming argument.

Supporting Paragraphs

Just as you were taught in high school to do with essays, we support arguments (which an essay basically is) by using body paragraphs. These give support to your primary claim made in your introduction / thesis.

The strongest support often comes from well-respected data on the topic you’re discussing, e.g. data from large, well-done studies, solid polling data (if you’re discussing opinion), etc. The key is to have the data come from a source that is least exposed to scrutiny due to small sample sizes, faulty methodologies, or bias.

Addressing the Counterarugument

Your argument will face opposition; it’s up to you to figure out exactly what shape that resistance will take, and to adequately handle it preemptively at various points within your supporting paragraphs.

Be careful to approach these counterarguments with respect, and to form a significant attack on your own idea when addressing the counterarguments. To stand up a weaker version of the real counter, only to knock it down with ease, will cause many to dismiss your entire effort outright.

Also try to avoid rude, hostile, or deprecating language when addressing counterpoints; this tactic can easily result in the audience that you most care about (those who disagree with you) ignoring your argument due to adverse emotional reaction.

Conclusion

The conclusion should basically restate your originial proposition (claim), and then lay out the support you have given to it. You can slightly restate your claim, but avoid adding any additional claims–as these too would require their own support.

References

1 [ Arguments and Inference | philosophypages.com ]
2 [ Deductive Reasoning | wikipedia.org ]