Analyzing Arguments

Lesson 1

SKILL OVERVIEW

Recall that the purpose of an argument is to persuade readers to agree with the writer’s position. When you analyze an argument, you identify its main parts and think about how they work together to try to fulfill that purpose. Analyzing an argument helps you understand it. In this lesson, you will learn about the three main parts of an argument: the central claim, support for the claim, and counterarguments.

Position, or Central Claim

The position, or central claim, is the writer’s point of view about what readers should believe or do about a subject. A claim may contain words like should, ought to, or must, or it may be a command. A claim may also be an assertion, or judgment, that something is true:

  • Claim with should: The government should not make further cuts to the budget of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
  • Claim stated as a command: Support American workers. Buy American-made products.
  • Claim stated as an assertion: E85-a blend of corn-based ethanol and gasoline-is the car fuel of the future.

To identify claims, look for debatable subjects, or ones that give rise to different points of view. Then, ask yourself, “What does the writer want me to believe or do about this subject?”

A claim is not the same as an opinion. An opinion is a personal judgment that cannot be proven true. It is someone’s personal preference, or taste. In contrast a claim, can be proven true or likely to be true based on available evidence

Opinion Claim
Chocolate is delicious. Brand X chocolate is the creamiest because it has the most fat.
The governor is great. The governor’s job-creation program has created hundreds of new jobs.

Support for the Claim

To try to convince readers to believe their claims, writers provide support-explanations of why­ their claims are correct and true. The most basic support is reasons, or rationales for believing a claim. Reasons help answer the question, “Why should I believe or do what you want me to?” Each reason may be followed by evidence, or proof, such as the following:

  • specific examples or cases
  • the opinion of experts or authorities in a subject
  • statistics, or facts presented in number form
  • the results of surveys, polls, or questionnaires
  • the results of scientific experiments and studies

To understand how a claim, reasons, and evidence work together to persuade readers, take a look at a plan for an argument. Suppose that a writer claims that able adults should exercise regularly to stay healthy. To support the claim, the writer might give this reason:

  • Daily exercise helps prevent heart disease.

To support the reason, the writer might give evidence like this:

  • Expert opinion: In Physical Activity and Health, the U.S. Surgeon General reports that regular physical activity reduces the risk of death from coronary heart disease.

  • Statistics: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 600,000 Americans die of heart disease each year. Exercise could prevent some of those deaths­ even among people who have heart problems. The death rate from heart disease among heart patients who exercise is 20 to 25 percent lower than the death rate of heart patients who don’t exercise.

  • Study: A recent study by British Heart Association scientists found that physically active adults had lower levels of inflammatory markers linked to heart disease.

Notice the relationship between the claim, the reason, and the evidence. The evidence, which comes from reliable sources like the U.S. Surgeon General, supports the reason by offering proof that the reason is true. The reason supports the claim by showing why the claim is true.

Writers who are confident in their evidence will cite their sources. These citations tell readers where to look if they want to further research the claim.

Counterarguments

A third part of an argument is counterarguments, or reasons that someone might disagree with the central claim. In counterarguments, a writer presents arguments against his or her position and then tries to refute them or show why they are not true.

It may, at first, seem odd that a writer would present arguments against his or her own position. Doesn’t that weaken the writer’s argument? The truth is that counterarguments and refutations strengthen an argument by showing the writer to be fair-minded, knowledgeable, and trustworthy. Because arguments are always about debatable issues, there are always at least two “sides” to them-arguments in favor of a position, and arguments against it. By presenting counterarguments, a writer shows that he or she knows more than one side of the story.

Presenting counterarguments is a good strategy for another reason. Readers who come to an argument with knowledge of the issue may have already formed opinions about it. Some readers may agree with the writer’s position before they even read the argument. Other readers may disagree. In fact, some readers may come to an argument with such strong beliefs that nothing could persuade them to change their minds. However, some readers will probably be undecided. By presenting counterarguments and explaining why they are wrong, the writer has the opportunity to try to persuade readers who mildly disagree or are undecided.

Practice