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Writing: Arguments: The Basics

Most of the writing that you will do professionally or academically involves constructing arguments.  Not the put-up-your-fists-'cause-I'm-gonna-punch-you type of an argument, but the kind that involves offering an opinion and backing it up.  Instructors often ask for this kind of writing on discussion boards or as a part of research papers.  Knowing what an argument is and how to structure one can be help you be a better writer here at Cummings and on the job

Argument Strategy

An argument makes a claim and uses evidence to back it up.Arguments all follow the same basic strategy. They go by many names (claim-data-warrant; Toulmin method) but a very easy way to remember it is as OREEO

O:  State your opinion.  In other words, tell the audience what your point is or what you are going to prove.  If you listened in English class back in high school, you know that this is also called a thesis or a claim.  This typically answers the question, "What do I think?

R:  Give a reason.  A reason may be logical or it may be evidence-based.  A reason typically answers the question, "Why do I think this?"

E:  Back up your reason with evidence.   Evidence answers the question, "How do I know this is the case?"  Evidence is also known as data or proof.  It can take many forms:  quotes from experts, statistics, testimonials, interviews, surveys, experimental data, and sometimes even your own experience.

E:  Explain the evidence.  The connection will be clear in your head -- but not necessarily your audience's, especially if your opinion is a controversial or difficult one to comprehend.  As a writer, it is your job to make the connection between your opinion and the evidence clear to the reader.  This can be done with an answer to the question, "Why is the evidence presented relevant to the claim at hand?"   Called a warrant, it tells the reader why your opinion is true.  

Explanation can also take the form of impact, where you explain why the reader should care.  Why is your opinion important?  What is the significance of your opinion and the evidence supporting it?  Impact tells a reader what to do with your argument.

Oreo Stack -- yum!

An important distinction needs to be made at this point:  explanations in argumentation are about evidence and not about persuasion.  Persuasion is different than argumentation.  See the sidebar for more information.

O:  Link back to your opinion.  Remind the reader one more time what your point/claim/thesis was in a way that does not sound repetitive, but reinforces the point you were trying to make.

Good Arguments Signal What is Next

Well-written arguments make it easy for a reader to follow their logic.  Using an organizational strategy like OREEO can help.  However, good writers also make use of signal phrases to alert readers of what is coming.  A signal phrase helsp you to smoothly incorporate the source and explanation of its information into your writing.

The printable handout linked below explains how to use signal phrases and gives several examples.


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There is a difference between an argument and persuasion.

Arguments offer sound reasoning and evidence to convince an audience to accept something as truth.   An argument will offer facts that support the reasoning.  It may also offer different perspectives on the issue or may predict and evaluate the consequences of accepting the argument. 

Persuasion uses personal, moral, or emotional appeal to get an audience to adopt a particular point of view.  It may blend fact and emotion, often relying on opinion to be convincing.   Similar to an argument, it may explain the opposite position (usually for the sole purpose of knocking it down) and it may predict the results of accepting the opinion, especially if the information will help convince the reader to adopt the opinion.   Persuasion is often known as rhetoric in academic circles.  In personal life, it's probably the heaviest component of any conversation with a teenager.

Which one is right for your assignment?  

The only way to know is to look carefully at the assignment prompt. It may give you clues about what sorts of evidence you will need and what sorts of reasoning will work best.

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