In a Nutshell
When you ask people to do or think something they otherwise would not, they quite naturally want to know why they should do so. In fact, people tend to ask the same five questions:
- “What do you want me to do or think?”
- “Why should I do or think that?”
- “How do I know that what you say is true?"
- “What about this other idea, fact, or conclusion?”
- And, sometimes, “Why should I accept that your reasons support your claim?”
When you make a good argument, you anticipate and respond to each of these questions:
- The answer to What do you want me to do or think? is your claim: “I claim that you should do or think X.”
- The answer to Why should I do or think that? states your reasons: “You should do or think X because . . .”
- The answer to How do I know that what you say is true? presents your evidence: “You can believe my reasons because they are supported by these facts . . .”
- The answer to What about this other idea, fact, or conclusion? acknowledges that your readers might see things differently and then responds to that alternative view.
- The answer to Why should I accept that your reasons support your claim? states your general principle of reasoning, called a warrant: “My specific reason supports my specific claim because whenever this general condition is true, we can generally draw a conclusion like mine.”
In academic and professional situations, we don’t argue just for the sake of argument
. Academics, business people, scientists, and other professionals all make arguments
to determine what to do or think, or to solve a problem
by enlisting others to do or believe something they otherwise would not. What matters is not just that you believe that what you have to say is true, but that you give others good reasons
to believe it as well—and also show them that you have considered the issue from every angle. To do that, build your argument
out of the answers to the five questions any rational person will expect you to answer.
The Five Questions That Every Reader Will Ask
—“What do you want me to do or think?”
Question #1 is a friendly question. Something has inspired a reader to consider your argument
and he or she is ready to hear you speak your mind. “What do you want me to do or think?” The reader is ready to hear your claim
You know how to answer this question because you make arguments
like this every day. Suppose, for example, that Sally is having coffee with her friend Jim. Jim points out a story on the front page of his newspaper:
Jim: So did you hear about the hurricane that’s headed for New Orleans?
Sally: Yes, I think they should evacuate the city as soon as possible.
Sally has made a claim
: a statement of her view of what someone should do: New Orleans should be evacuated. Note that this is not a statement of fact but of Sally’s idea, her judgment about the best course of action
. She takes a position on a problem
without an obvious solution; other rational people could disagree. Some might claim
that the hurricane is not strong enough to warrant
evacuation or that this time New Orleans is properly prepared for a hurricane. Sally has made a claim
because her statement is up for debate.
—“Why should I think that?”
This is another friendly question. Readers want to know the reasons
that support your claim
, and most writers are happy to supply them. Most readers won’t question your argument
until they know your reasons
Let’s look at how Jim responds to Sally’s claim
Jim: Really? Why do you say that?
Sally: Well, New Orleans is surrounded by water and it’s mostly below sea level. If a hurricane breaks the levees that keep the water out, the city will flood. Houses could be destroyed, and people would be at risk.
Sally answers Jim’s friendly question by giving him a few reasons
why she thinks New Orleans should be evacuated. New Orleans is (1) surrounded by water, (2) mostly below sea level, and (3) protected by levees. So if the levees break and let the water in, (4) houses will be destroyed, and (5) people will be at risk.
—“How do I know that your reasons
Here things get a little trickier. This question, which asks for factual evidence
, seems not just to ask what you think but also to doubt
whether it is true. In some contexts, this question can have a suspicious ring to it.
When Jim asks Sally a version of this question, we can sense the doubt in his tone:
Jim: Will the levees actually break? Why do you think that they’re in danger of failing?
Sally: Remember Hurricane Katrina in 2005? The levees failed then, and the city was almost ruined. It’s right there in the newspaper story: many of the levees have been rebuilt or reinforced since Katrina, but the government is way behind and there are a lot of levees that are just like the ones that failed after Katrina. And even the ones that have been rebuilt will not protect against the worst storm surges.
When Jim asks what makes Sally believe that the levees are in danger of failing, she must respond with facts. For her factual evidence
, Sally points to a real, historical event as a precedent, and she cites facts she found in a reliable
newspaper. In an academic argument
, you’ll also need to give evidence
that your ideas are based on real-world facts. These facts can take the form of quotations
, events, statistics, dates, or other data
that you found in a reliable
source, but they must be something that your readers accept as true in order for your readers to see them as evidence
Taken together, your claim
, and evidence
make up the core of your argument
. While your claims
, and evidence
do answer your readers’ questions, they are also mostly about you
, what you think and why. Your argument
may be complete with just these three parts, but to fully address your readers’ concerns, you also need to address what they
think and why. That’s what happens in the fourth and fifth questions of argument
—“What about this other idea, fact, or conclusion? Or: What if I think about this topic differently than you do?”
You can expect that for any serious claim
about a significant problem
, there will be some readers who don’t see things the way you do. They may take a different approach to the problem
; they may want to consider different evidence
; or they may even think that your reasons
point to a different conclusion. If so, you have to anticipate that they will ask, “What about my
way of thinking about this?” Since you need to enlist them to accept your claim
, you have to address these objections
varying perspectives, and so on. The best way to do this is to acknowledge
your readers’ possible alternative
positions and then respond
Here, Jim raises a question based on a fact that he thinks Sally has not fully considered:
Jim: Sure, the Katrina flood was a disaster. But this new hurricane is not as strong as Katrina. It poses much less danger. And evacuation is expensive.
Sally: That’s true; the hurricane is weaker than Katrina now. But hurricanes often get stronger as they approach land, and you can’t wait until the last minute to evacuate—people will just get stuck out on the roads. So I think that everyone should evacuate even if it is expensive and at the moment seems that it may not be necessary. Better safe than sorry.
Sally acknowledges that Jim has a point: the current
danger may in fact be less than that posed by Katrina. But she responds with more facts: hurricanes can get stronger and evacuation takes time, so that it will be too late to evacuate if the hurricane intensifies as it approaches land. She then restates her claim
: people should evacuate.
—“Why should I accept that your reasons
support your claim
This last question is the most challenging of all, because it forces us to consider the logical assumptions on which we base our arguments
. Many arguments
never address these assumptions because writers assume that their readers will reason as they do. So we rarely see the answer to the fifth question, a statement of a general principle of reasoning or warrant
. But if your readers may not share your general principles, you should state them in your argument
In Sally’s response to Jim’s point about balancing the risk of flooding against the cost of evacuation, we see that they are following different principles:
Jim: I don’t know. Being too safe may not be smart. I’m not sure that the risk of flooding is enough to force an evacuation.
Sally: Well, I believe that no cost is too high to save lives. So whenever we can anticipate a reasonable possibility that lives will be endangered, we should be willing to accept a reasonable cost to avoid the loss of life. Even though the hurricane may not cause flooding, there is enough chance that it will. The cost of an evacuation is not too high a price to pay to save lives.
Jim may still not accept Sally’s principle: he may think that the costs
are too high. But what is important is that he can now see the complete basis of Sally’s argument
: he knows her claim
, her reasons
, her evidence
, how she responds to his alternative
views, and what principle she applies to connect her reasons
to her claim
The Five Parts of Argument
, there are five basic building blocks to any good argument
: each one responds to one of the five questions readers ask when someone claims
they should change what they do or think. The best way for you to develop and to test your arguments
is to imagine your readers asking these questions and then to offer your best and most respectful answers.