The Principles of Argumentation
by Johnie H. Scott, Assistant Professor
Pan African Studies Department - California State University, Northridge

One of the major modes of discourse, argumentation can be applied to virtually all assignments involving critical reasoning no matter the subject or discipline. As it involves a higher level of reasoning than associated with descriptive writing, or narrative writing, or expository writing per se, it is crucial for the successful university-level student to understand and master the principles, indeed the concepts that drive the critical thinking skills associated with argumentative writing.

The argumentative essay shares many characteristics with the expository essay. The argument also consists of an introduction, body and conclusion. It also is built around a major premise (in this instance, called the Proposition rather than the Thesis Statement). Additionally, there is a definite pattern of organization used in developing the argument. But before delving more deeply into this, let us go to the fundamentals.

What Is An "Argument?"

First, one must be familiar with the terminology. In this instance, the term argument refers to "a reasoned attempt to convince the audience to accept a particular point of view about a debatable topic." Looking more closely at this definition, we observe that the argument is not irrational; it does not depend strictly on passion or emotion. Rather, argumentation represents a "reasoned attempt," that is, an effort based on careful thinking and planning where the appeal is to the mind, the intellect of the audience at hand. Why? The answer to this is that one wants to "convince the audience to accept a particular point of view."

The key concept here is "to convince the audience," that is, you must make them believe your position, accept your logic and evidence. Not only do you want them to accept the evidence, but you want that audience to accept "a particular point of view" -- that point of view, or perspective, is yours. It is your position, your proposition. Understand that all too often the audience may be intrigued by the evidence presented, but that intrigue alone is not enough to convince them of the validity or authority of your position in the matter.

You want the audience to accept your point of view about the topic whether it is gun control, safe sex, or stiffer prison sentences for criminal offenders no matter what age. Finally, there must be "a debatable topic" present for a true argument to develop.

What is debatable? One cannot, for example, debate whether or not the Los Angeles Dodgers won the 1988 World Series or that Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser won the Most Valuable Player Award for that particular World Series. One cannot debate the fact that the Chicago Bulls won three consecutive National Basketball Association (NBA) championships from 1991-1993 or that Evander Holyfield, while losing his heavyweight champion of the world title to Riddick Bowe in 1992 was able to regain the title 11 months later in 1993 at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas.

Those are indisputable facts. One cannot debate the fact that Rev. Jesse Louis Jackson lost the 1988 bid for the Democratic Party's Presidential nomination to Michael Dukakis. That also is fact.

One can debate, however, what the concept of "Freedom" means to those Black South Africans living under apartheid. One can certainly debate whether or not high school administrators should ban the wearing of baseball caps by students to school as was the case in the San Fernando Valley during the 1988 school year in an effort to nip gang violence in the bud as being effective or over-reaching boundaries. Again, the key principle here is that the topic must be one which has at least two sides -- Pro (those in favor of the proposition under discussion) and Con (those who are against the Proposition as stated).

The Proposition

Now that we understand what the term argument refers to, we move to the fact that every argument must have a Proposition -- this is the major premise of the argument and classically will have at least three (3) major claims on which it is to be built.


The negative image of the African American male can be directly traced to the historic stereotyping of a racist white mentality evidenced in motion pictures, in literature and in popular American folklore.

Note here that the major premise is that the negative image of the African American male can be directly traced to the historic stereotyping of a racist white mentality. But to develop this proposition, the person must show through evidence (1) negative images in motion pictures, (2) negative images in American literature, and (3) negative images of African American males in popular American folklore. What you want to keep in mind, irrespective of the position you might be advancing, is to formulate a clearly stated proposition. There must be no ambiguity about your proposition. You also want to indicate within that proposition how you intend to support or develop it. And finally, you want to do so within one complete sentence that carries a subject and a verb.

Evidence in Argumentation

To support your proposition, one must present evidence. There are two (2) types of evidence used in argumentation : fact(s) and opinion(s). Facts consist of items that can be verified or proven. There are at least four (4) categories of facts:

  1. By Scientific Measurement -- one measures the extent of an earthquake not by how "it felt," but rather how it measured on the Richter Scale. In track and field, one commonly finds the Accutron used to time running events in thousandths of a second and the more accurate metric system used in field events such as the long jump or javelin throw;
  2. By the Way Nature Works -- we know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west; that water flows downhill, not uphill; that cloud formations indicate specific weather patterns;
  3. By Observation -- in courts of law, this would consist of eyewitness testimony. In research, this might consist of a longitudinal study of a phenomenom carried out over a period of 3-5 years involving several hundreds or thousands of cases looking for and recording similarities and differences; and
  4. By Statistics -- to note that for the year 1988, crimes of violence in the United States increased 9.2 percent from 1987 -- from 112,598 reported cases to 122,957 (a gain of 10,359 crimes). While this is a hypothetical example, one sees the approach used.

The second type of evidence that can be utilized in an argument is opinion. In this instance, we are not talking about your personal opinion (the audience already knows your position in the matter!). Nor are we talking about the way you friend might feel about the issue. That would surely be inadmissable in a court of law. Rather, the type of opinion we deal with here is expert opinion -- the opinions expressed by an established authority in the field. If the topic is child abuse patterns, then one may wish to cite a child psychologist who has published on the subject or the head of a group like Parents Anonymous that has dedicated itself to reducing and/or eliminating child abuse. The opinion(s) cited must be credible.

It is in presenting your evidence that you are, in fact, developing the Body of your argument. Keep in mind that in putting forth your Proposition, you do so in your introductory paragraphs. In developing that Introduction, you want to get the attention of the audience -- so again, make effective use of the various opening strategies. That evidence, be it fact or opinion, must be present in each of the three planks you put forth to develop and support your proposition. You want to make ample use of examples and illustrations along the way, bringing your proposition to life before the audience, painting word-pictures so that they can see, hear and feel what you are advancing to them. You want to convince, not merely inform!

Fallacious Reasoning

One area often overlooked by those engaged in argumentation, even the more practised, consists of fallacies. A fallacy is best described as illogical reasoning. There are many reasons why this can occur, but in this section we will single out some of the more important fallacies in hopes that you will memorize what they are, avoid them in your arguments, and be able to spot them in the arguments presented by others.

Hasty generalization occurs when you come to a conclusion based on too few examples or insufficient data. You might call this "jumping to conclusions." By the same token, when taken to the extreme we find that the hasty generalization becomes stereotyping when the actions or traits of a few are generalized to take in an entire group. Stereotyping can be mean, even vicious. Think of various ethnic stereotypes associated with African Americans, Asians, Hispanics and Jews.

Begging the Question takes place when you assume as a basic premise something that needs to be proven, for example:

  1. Inner city schools are inferior to suburban schools.
  2. Black colleges are inferior to major state-run universities.
  3. The Black Athlete is naturally superior to others.

Evading the Question happens when you move from the real issue and begin discussing something else. Imagine that the District Attorney in a streetgang homicide case implicates the single parent mother as a defendant as well for failing to know the whereabouts of her son. Or, asserting that racism in America is no longer a problem with the gains made by African Americans in electoral politics when the issue is the chronic, longtime double-digit unemployment of adult African American males. This type of fallacy will also involve name calling as when you accuse your opponent of being a wife beater or alcoholic rather than sticking with the issues. Avoid this. It distracts from your argument and is dishonest.

Finally, there is argumentum ad hominem. This occurs when you direct your argument to the prejudices and instincts of the crowd, of the mob, rather than dealing with the real issue(s). For example, in speaking to a group of welfare recipients about their tenant rights, you base your argument on the indignities they may have suffered rather than educating them to the problem(s) at hand and what they can do about these.

As you can see, to properly develop an argument calls for time, it calls for research, it calls for careful thinking and planning. It also makes certain demands on you relative to ethics -- that is, you want to always be truthful when addressing the issues, you want to avoid deceit or the appearance of deception, yours is the burden of maintaining credibility at all times. This is not easy but as you go along, one gains experience and confidence.

Anticipating Objections

All too often do we fall in love with our point of view to the extent that we forget our own humanity -- that is, all humans will err. No one can make a claim to absolute truth on an issue. One must always contend with the shadow of a doubt. So long as this is true, then you must be conscious of the fact that your opponent may have very valid objections to your proposition. You should try to anticipate, to think of the possible objections that can be made against your argument. Not only that, but those good practicioners of the art will incorporate those objections into their argument and answer them along the way. This is very impressive. Not only have you, so to speak, stolen some of your opponent's thunder, but you have also made a very positive impression on your audience/your reader. For that audience is now saying to itself, "Wow, this person has really done his/her homework!"

The incorporation of these possible objections can occur all along the de- velopment of your argument. They can appear in each and every one of your support planks to your proposition and can then be reiterated at the summary. And it is in the Summary, which is the term used to refer to the conclusion of the argumentative essay, that one wraps everything up in convincing the reader(s) of your point of view.

The Closing Strategies

Nowhere is it more true than with the argumentative essay that you want to close strongly! The fact is that you not only want the audience to hear you; you also want them to believe you and, where needed, take action on what they have heard. To that end, the argumentative essay will certainly draw from the eight different strategies that exist to conclude. You may wish to use a combination of these strategies as you make your presentation of proof. With the thought in mind that this paper carries ample evidence, make certain to observe the guidelines for documentation. For those in the social sciences, there are both APA and ASA guidelines that do exist and can be studied. The same applies for those in the humanities with the Modern Language Association.


In this presentation, we have examined some of the basic principles that surround the argumentative mode of discourse. For those concerned with arguing as a social process, then concern must certainly be paid to certain communication rules as you are not verbally assaulting someone but rather, as noted earlier, making a rational appeal to the audience to accept a particular point of view based upon a claim supported by evidence. Those Speech Communication scholars will point out that there are four social conventions which govern any argument. As Douglas Ehninger points out, "That is, when you decide to argue with another person, you are making, generally, commitments to four standards of judgment:"

  1. Convention of Bilaterality: Argument is explicitly bilateral: it requires at least two people or two competing messages. The arguer, implicitly or explicitly, is saying that he or she is presenting a message that can be examined by others. A spokesperson for the National Urban League, for example, assumes that designation and puts forth that organization's proposed solution(s) to certain social problems that America is faced with in oppostion to solutions offered by others. In doing so, the National Urban League specifically calls for counterargument so that a middle ground may be reached.

  2. Convention of Self-Risk: In argument, there is always the risk of being proven wrong. For example, when you argue that a federal public school system is preferable to a state- or local-based public school system, you invite the possibility that your opponent will convince you that local or neighborhood-controlled schools present fewer bureaucratic problems and more benefits than does federal control. Keep in mind that the public has been invited to carefully evaluate both arguments, that the public eye can and will expose your weakenesses as well as those of your opponent.

  3. The Fairness Doctrine: Our system of government, from the community level up to the Congress itself, is based upon the "fairness doctrine." This, in itself, presents the following concept: the idea that debate (argument) ought to be as extended and as complete as possible in order to guaranteee that all viewpoints are aired, considered, and defended. In my classroom when students debate, equal time is given to both sides even if one side chooses not to use all the time allotted, or fails to use all the available time. This is different, however, from how that time is used -- that is, the effectiveness with which a party is able to utilize the time it is given.

  4. Commitment to Rationality: When you argue or debate, a commitment is made to proceed with logic. When you make an assertion, you are saying, "This is what I believe and these are my reasons for that belief." As a debater, your commitment is to giving evidence, examples, data in support of your assertion -- reasons that you believe fully support your claim and should be accepted by the audience or the doubtful. For example, when you argue that handguns should be banned by law, someone else has the right to say "No" (the convention of bilaterality) and the right to put forth a contrary (i.e., "Con") proposition (the fairness doctrine). Furthermore, all parties to the argument -- the doubtful, the audience, the person or parties you are debating with -- have the right to ask, "Why do you believe that?" (the convention of rationality). Argument, accordingly, is a rational form of communication in the sense that all debaters believe they have good reasons for the acceptance of their assertions. They are, in fact, obligated to provide those reasons; they cannot get away with saying,"Oh, I don't know -- I just feel that it's true. That's the way it is. You know what I mean." If the evidence presented is relevant to the assertion being made and if they are acceptable to the audience hearing the assertion put forth, then the debater will have met that commitment to rationality.

With this in mind, the person about to engage in debate will always take care to assess not only the assertion being made, but the audience to whom that claim is being presented. You may have done exhaustive research on a proposition. You may have thought your argument out, have written a good opening and closed with a logical conclusion. But if you have failed to take into account the nature of the audience listening to your assertion, then there is a great likelihood that your argument will fall upon deaf ears.

Take, for instance, the person whose argument is that predominantly black inner-city schools are inferior to predominantly white suburban schools. That individual has built this argument by pointing out the problems of high absenteeism rates, high drop-out rates, problems with drug trafficking on and near the campus, little or no parental involvement in the parent-teacher associations, lax discipline in the classrooms, and poor student performance on standardized tests. At the same time, this arguer has failed to take into account that those listening to this argument live in the inner city, have brothers and sisters, perhaps older relatives who attended the very schools being disparaged or, in their eyes, "put down" yet one more time. It is on factors such as this that arguments are won and lost, where the arguer has failed to take into account the human dimension of the problem -- the people you are addressing without taking into account their own emotions about the issue under discussion.

The same holds true for writing an argumentative essay. One becomes impressed not only by the breadth of the research or the writer's command of the facts involved, but even moreso by the logic combined with compassion and insight that the arguer demonstrates. Those who would frame an argument without taking into account the human element, who would plunge headlong into the debate without taking time to stop and ask the question, "Who is my audience and how do they feel about this? How have or will they be affected by what I have to say?" run the great risk not only of falling short in their argument, but alienating the audience at the same time. Where there is alienation, communication cannot take place. Always keep this in mind as you develop assertions and present reasons for your beliefs: that people and not walls are taking in your message.


There are four modes of discourse: narration, description, exposition, and argumentation. Of the four, argumentation is unquestionably the primal form of communication as it involves the fine art of persuasion as well. The argumentative essay may also be referred to as the Assertion-with- Evidence essay. The person is making an assertion, a statement that says, "This is so," which he or she then begins to prove through evidence. That assertion is also known as the proposition (i.e., the main idea of an argu- mentative essay). This proposition should have at least three patterns evident within it by which the arguer will develop the argument. Argument itself may be simply defined as "a reasoned attempt to convince the audience to accept a particular point of view about a debateable subject or topic."

The evidence one uses in any argument may be divided into fact and expert opinion. The evidence can and should take the forms of examples, details, illustrations, statistics. When developing an argumentative essay, one has to always beware of fallacies or "illogical reasoning." While there are many types of fallacies that can and do exist in rhetoric, six (6) basic ones have been presented here for your review and thinking -- hasty generalizations, stereotyping, begging the question, name calling, evading the question, and argumentum ad hominem. In addition, the good argumentative essay will always try to take into account what the opposition or contrary position might have to say and include or address that within the paper.

Equally important to remember is that argument is a social process and for those who engage in it, there is a commitment ot specific communica- tion rules: (1) convention of bilaterality; (2) convention of self-risk; (3) the fairness doctrine; and (4) the commitment to rationality. In realizing that argumentation is a social process, the arguer is reminded to never forget the human factor -- that the audience listening does have an emotional stake in the subject under debate or dispute. Those who fail to take this into account, who treat the audience (i.e., the reader or readers, listeners) like walls rather than human beings will fail in the effort to convince that group to accept your assertion no matter how ell-organized, no matter how well-developed or articulated.

Discussion Questions

  1. Before reading this presentation, how would you have defined an argument? Differentiate between your earlier definition of an argument and the one that emerges from this article.
  2. Develop an argumentative paragraph (either pro or con) on the subject, "Should Students Be Responsible for Their Learning?" In a separate paragraph, explain why you chose the particular evidence you did. What would be the primary objection that someone taking an oppostion position to you might make, and why? Be specific.
  3. In identifying the six types of fallacies that most often occur in argumentative writing, provide your own definition and example or illustration for each.
  4. With respect to the social conventions implicit to argumentation -- bilaterality, self-risk, fairness, and rationality -- apply these to yourself in a self-examination of the way you have attempted argumentation and argumentative writing prior to now. What do you learn from this self- assessment?

Key Concepts

  1. Proposition
  2. Fact(s)
  3. Opinion
  4. Fallacy
  5. Argument
  6. Rationality
  7. Social Convention(s)
  8. Premise
  9. Breadth
  10. Credible

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