Constructing an argument
When writing an essay it is essential to construct an argument. An argument is a particular stand on an issue or question. It is made up of a series of claims. There are two types of claim:
- the conclusion: the final claim that you are trying to prove. This is often the answer to a direct question, and is also known as the thesis statement.
- the premises: other claims that lead to or contribute to the thesis statement. These are often topic sentences of paragraphs.
In order to prove the premises, you must also provide:
- the evidence: the research, facts and discussion used to prove those points.
Therefore, if you are asked to argue a concept you are being asked to provide evidence to support your premises, which in turn support your conclusion.
When writing an essay, for example, the thesis statement will appear in your introduction and conclusion. Each premise is usually in a separate paragraph, supported by the evidence for that premise. For more on structuring an essay, see essay planning and structure.
Identifying a claim
You can often identify a premise or a conclusion by the kinds of words used:
- Premise: since, because, as, for, given that, assuming that
- Conclusion: thus, therefore, hence, so, it follows that, we may conclude that
(Flage, 2003, p. 58-9)
As Allen (2004, p. 19) observes, sometimes the same claim can be used as either a conclusion or a premise, depending on the point you want to make:
"Your car is dirty [conclusion] because you drove through some mud [premise]."
"You should wash your car [conclusion] since your car is dirty [premise]."
What makes a strong argument?
An argument is strong if it convinces the reader that the conclusion is correct. An argument is weak if there are gaps or bad connections between the premises which undermine their link to the conclusion.
A strong argument is:
- supported: the evidence is convincing and objective, and it supports the claims
- balanced: the argument considers all the different perspectives, and comes to a reasonable conclusion based on those perspectives
- logical: the argument is clearly and consistently reasoned. An argument that contains errors of logic (also known as logical fallacies) is weak.
You can examine the strength of your argument by applying the principles of critical reading.
References and further reading
Allen, M. (2004). Smart thinking: Skills for critical understanding and writing. (2nd ed.). Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press. [Massey Library link]
Flage, D. (2003). The art of questioning: An introduction to critical thinking. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education. [Massey Library link]