9-Making an Argument

Components of an Argument

Making an argument in an essay, term paper, or other college writing task is like laying out a case in court. Just as there are conventions that attorneys must adhere to as they make their arguments in court, there are conventions in arguments made in college assignments. Among those conventions is to use the components of an argument.

Note:

This section on making an argument was developed with the help of “Making Good Arguments” in The Craft of Research, by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams, University of Chicago Press, 2003.

The arguments you’re used to hearing or participating in with friends about something that is uncertain or needs to be decided contain the same components as the ones you’ll need to use in essays and term papers. Arguments contain those components because those are the ones that work—used together, they stand the best chance of persuading others that you are correct.

For instance, the question gets things started off. The claim, or thesis, tells people what you consider a true way of describing a thing, situation, or phenomenon or what action you think should be taken. The reservations, alternatives, and objections that someone else brings up in your sources or that you imagine your readers logically might have allow you to demonstrate how your reasons and evidence (maybe) overcome that kind of thinking—and (you hope) your claim/thesis comes out stronger for having withstood that test.

Activity: Labeled Components

Read the short dialog on pages 114 and 115 in the ebook The Craft of Research by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams. The components of an argument are labeled for you.

Example: Argument as a Dialog

Here’s a dialog of an argument, with the most important components labeled.

Jerald: Where should we have my parents take us for dinner when they’re here on Sunday? [He asks the question about something that’s unsettled.]
Cathy: We should go to The Cascades! [She makes her main claim to answer the question.] It’s the nicest place around. [Another claim, which functions as a reason for the main claim.]
Jerald: How so? [He asks for a reason to believe her claims.]
Cathy: White table cloths. [She gives a reason.]
Jerald: What’s that have to do with how good the food is? [He doesn’t see how her reason is relevant to the claim.]
Cathy: Table cloths make restaurants seem upscale. [She relates her reason for the claims.] And I’ve read a survey in Columbus Metro that says the Cascades is one of the most popular restaurants in town. [She offers evidence.]
Jerald: I never read the Metro. And Dino’s has table cloths. [He offers a point that contradicts her reason.]
Cathy: I know, but those are checkered! I’m talking about heavy white ones. [She acknowledges his point and responds to it.]
Jerald: My dad loves Italian food. I guess he’s kind of a checkered-table-cloth kind of guy? [He raises another reservation or objection.]
Cathy: Yeah, but? Well, I know The Cascades has some Italian things on the menu. I mean, it’s not known for its Italian food but you can order it there. Given how nice the place is, it will probably be gourmet Italian food. [She acknowledges his point and responds to it. There’s another claim in there.]
Jerald: Ha! My dad, the gourmet? Hey, maybe this place is too expensive. [He raises another reservation.]
Cathy: More than someplace like Dino’s. [She concedes his point.]
Jerald: Yeah. [He agrees.]
Cathy: But everybody eats at The Cascades with their parents while they’re students here, so it can’t be outlandishly expensive. [She now puts limits on how much she’s conceding.]

Activity: Components of an Argument

Open activity in a web browser.


Argument and Information Needs

Each component of an argument relates back to your information needs.

Need Component of Your Argument
To get background information and develop a research question (if your professor hasn’t given you a specific question) Your research question, which probably will not appear in your term paper or essay but which drives the entire research process
To answer your research question Your thesis (may also be called your claim)
To convince your audience your answer is correct or at least reasonable
  • Reasons for your thesis and evidence for your reasons
  • Acknowledgement that others may have reservations or objections to your argument or alternative solutions
  • Reasons why others’ opinions are incorrect or not important
To describe the situation around your research question and why it’s important This is not an argument component but is usually an important part of term papers and essays. It is usually done in the introduction in order to help readers understand and to encourage them to continue reading.
To report what others have said that’s relevant
  • Reasons for your thesis and evidence for your reasons
  • Acknowledgement that others may have reservations or objections to your argument or alternative solutions
  • Reasons why others’ opinions are incorrect or not important