6.3 Making an Argument

Learning Objectives

  1. Demonstrate how to form a clear argument with appropriate support to persuade your audience.
  2. Recognize and understand inherent weaknesses in fallacies.

According to the famous satirist Jonathan Swift, “Argument is the worst sort of conversation.” You may be inclined to agree. When people argue, they are engaged in conflict and it’s usually not pretty. It sometimes appears that way because people resort to fallacious arguments or false statements, or they simply do not treat each other with respect. They get defensive, try to prove their own points, and fail to listen to each other.

But this should not be what happens in written argument. Instead, when you make an argument in your writing, you will want to present your position with logical points, supporting each point with appropriate sources. You will want to give your audience every reason to perceive you as ethical and trustworthy. Your audience will expect you to treat them with respect, and to present your argument in a way that does not make them defensive. Contribute to your credibility by building sound arguments and using strategic arguments with skill and planning.

In this section we will briefly discuss the classic form of an argument, a more modern interpretation, and finally seven basic arguments you may choose to use. Imagine that these are tools in your toolbox and that you want to know how each is effectively used. Know that the people who try to persuade you—from telemarketers to politicians—usually have these tools at hand.

Let’s start with a classical rhetorical strategy. It asks the rhetorician, speaker, or author to frame arguments in the following steps:

Table 6.7 Classical Rhetorical Strategy

1. Exordium Prepares the audience to consider your argument
2. Narration Provides the audience with the necessary background or context for your argument
3. Proposition Introduces your claim being argued in the document
4. Confirmation Offers the audience evidence to support your argument
5. Refutation Introduces to the audience and then discounts or refutes the counterarguments or objections
6. Peroration Your conclusion of your argument

This is a standard pattern in rhetoric and you will probably see it in both speech and English courses. The pattern is useful to guide you in preparing your document and can serve as a valuable checklist to insure you are prepared. While this formal pattern has distinct advantages, you may not see it used exactly as indicated here on a daily basis. What may be more familiar to you is Stephen Toulmin’s rhetorical strategy, which focuses on three main elements (see Table 6.8 “Toulmin’s Three-Part Rhetorical Strategy”).

Table 6.8 Toulmin’s Three-Part Rhetorical Strategy

Element Description Example
1. Claim Your statement of belief or truth It is important to spay or neuter your pet.
2. Data Your supporting reasons for the claim Millions of unwanted pets are euthanized every year.
3. Warrant You create the connection between the claim and the supporting reasons Pets that are spayed or neutered do not reproduce, preventing the production of unwanted animals.

Toulmin’s rhetorical strategy is useful in that it makes the claim explicit, clearly illustrates the relationship between the claim and the data, and allows the reader to follow the writer’s reasoning. You may have a good idea or point, but your audience will want to know how you arrived at that claim or viewpoint. The warrant addresses the inherent and often unsaid question, “Why is this data so important to your topic?” In so doing, it helps you to illustrate relationships between information for your audience.

Effective Argumentation Strategies: GASCAP/T

Here is a useful way of organizing and remembering seven key argumentative strategies:

  1. Argument by Generalization
  2. Argument by Analogy
  3. Argument by Sign
  4. Argument by Consequence
  5. Argument by Authority
  6. Argument by Principle
  7. Argument by Testimony

Richard Fulkerson notes that a single strategy is sufficient to make an argument some of the time, but it is often better to combine several strategies to make an effective argument (Fulkerson, 1996). He organized the argumentative strategies in this way to compare the differences, highlight the similarities, and allow for their discussion. This model, often called by its acronym GASCAP, is a useful strategy to summarize six key arguments and is easy to remember. Here we have adapted it, adding one argument that is often used in today’s speeches and presentations, the argument by testimony. Table 6.9 “GASCAP/T Strategies” presents each argument, provides a definition of the strategy and an example, and examines ways to evaluate each approach.

Table 6.9 GASCAP/T Strategies

Argument by Claim Example Evaluation
G Generalization Whatever is true of a good example or sample will be true of everything like it or the population it came from. If you can vote, drive, and die for your country, you should also be allowed to buy alcohol. STAR System: For it to be reliable, we need a (S) sufficient number of (T) typical, (A) accurate, and (R) reliable examples.
A Analogy Two situations, things or ideas are alike in observable ways and will tend to be alike in many other ways Alcohol is a drug. So is tobacco. They alter perceptions, have an impact physiological and psychological systems, and are federally regulated substances. Watch for adverbs that end in “ly,” as they qualify, or lessen the relationship between the examples. Words like “probably,” “maybe,” “could, “may,” or “usually” all weaken the relationship.
S Sign Statistics, facts, or cases indicate meaning, much like a stop sign means “stop.” Motor vehicle accidents involving alcohol occur at significant rates among adults of all ages in the United States. Evaluate the relationship between the sign and look for correlation, where the presenter says what the facts “mean.” Does the sign say that? Does it say more? What is not said? Is it relevant?
C Cause If two conditions always appear together, they are causally related. The U.S. insurance industry has been significantly involved in state and national legislation requiring proof of insurance, changes in graduated driver’s licenses, and the national change in the drinking age from age 18 to age 21. Watch out for “after the fact, therefore because of the fact” (post hoc, ergo propter hoc) thinking. There might not be a clear connection, and it might not be the whole picture. Mothers Against Drunk Driving might have also been involved with each example of legislation.
A Authority What a credible source indicates is probably true. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, older drivers are increasingly involved in motor vehicle accidents. Is the source legitimate and is their information trustworthy? Institutes, boards, and people often have agendas and distinct points of view.
P Principle An accepted or proper truth The change in the drinking age was never put to a vote. It’s not about alcohol, it’s about our freedom of speech in a democratic society. Is the principle being invoked generally accepted? Is the claim, data or warrant actually related to the principle stated? Are there common exceptions to the principle? What are the practical consequences of following the principle in this case?
T Testimony Personal experience I’ve lost friends from age 18 to 67 to alcohol. It impacts all ages, and its effects are cumulative. Let me tell you about two friends in particular. Is the testimony authentic? Is it relevant? Is it representative of other’s experiences? Use the STAR system to help evaluate the use of testimony.

Evidence

Now that we’ve clearly outlined several argument strategies, how do you support your position with evidence or warrants? If your premise or the background from which you start is valid, and your claim is clear and clearly related, the audience will naturally turn their attention to “prove it.” This is where the relevance of evidence becomes particularly important. Here are three guidelines to consider in order to insure your evidence passes the “so what?” test of relevance in relation to your claim. Make sure your evidence has the following traits:

  1. Supportive. Examples are clearly representative, statistics are accurate, testimony is authoritative, and information is reliable.
  2. Relevant. Examples clearly relate to the claim or topic, and you are not comparing “apples to oranges.”
  3. Effective. Examples are clearly the best available to support the claim, quality is preferred to quantity, there are only a few well-chosen statistics, facts, or data.

Appealing to Emotions

While we’ve highlighted several points to consider when selecting information to support your claim, know that Aristotle strongly preferred an argument based in logic over emotion. Can the same be said for your audience, and to what degree is emotion and your appeal to it in your audience a part of modern life?

Emotions are a psychological and physical reaction, such as fear or anger, to stimuli that we experience as a feeling. Our feelings or emotions directly impact our own point of view and readiness to communicate, but also influence how, why, and when we say things. Emotions influence not only how you say or what you say, but also how you hear or what you hear. At times, emotions can be challenging to control. Emotions will move your audience, and possibly even move you, to change or act in certain ways.

Aristotle thought the best and most preferable way to persuade an audience was through the use of logic, free of emotion. He also recognized that people are often motivated, even manipulated, by the exploitation of their emotions. In a business context, we still engage in this debate, demanding to know the facts separate from personal opinion or agenda, but see the use of emotional appeal to sell products.

Marketing experts are famous for creating a need or associating an emotion with a brand or label in order to sell it. You will speak the language of your audience in your document, and may choose to appeal to emotion, but you need to consider how the strategy works, as it may be considered a tool that has two edges.

If we think of the appeal to emotion as a knife, we can see it has two edges. One edge can cut your audience, and the other can cut you. If you advance an appeal to emotion in your document on spaying and neutering pets, and discuss the millions of unwanted pets that are killed each year, you may elicit an emotional response. If you use this approach repeatedly, your audience may grow weary of this approach, and it will lose its effectiveness. If you change your topic to the use of animals in research, the same strategy may apply, but repeated attempts to elicit an emotional response may backfire (i.e., in essence “cutting” you) and produce a negative response called “emotional resistance.”

Emotional resistance involves getting tired, often to the point of rejection, of hearing messages that attempt to elicit an emotional response. Emotional appeals can wear out the audience’s capacity to receive the message. As Aristotle outlined, ethos (credibility), logos (logic), and pathos (passion, enthusiasm, and emotional response) constitute the building blocks of any document. It’s up to you to create a balanced document, where you may appeal to emotion, but choose to use it judiciously.

On a related point, the use of an emotional appeal may also impair your ability to write persuasively or effectively. For example, if you choose to present an article about suicide to persuade people against committing it and you start showing a photo of your brother or sister that you lost to suicide, your emotional response may cloud your judgment and get in the way of your thinking. Never use a personal story, or even a story of someone you do not know, if the inclusion of that story causes you to lose control. While it’s important to discuss relevant topics, you need to assess your relationship to the message. Your documents should not be an exercise in therapy. Otherwise, you will sacrifice ethos and credibility, even your effectiveness, if you “lose it” because you are really not ready to discuss the issue.

Recognizing Fallacies

Fallacy” is another way of saying false logic. Fallacies or rhetorical tricks deceive your audience with their style, drama, or pattern, but add little to your document in terms of substance. They are best avoided because they can actually detract from your effectiveness. There are several techniques or “tricks” that allow the writer to rely on style without offering substantive argument, to obscure the central message, or twist the facts to their own gain. Table 6.10 “Fallacies” examines the eight classical fallacies. Learn to recognize them so they can’t be used against you, and learn to avoid using them with your audience.

Table 6.10 Fallacies

Fallacy Definition Example
1. Red Herring Any diversion intended to distract attention from the main issue, particularly by relating the issue to a common fear. It’s not just about the death penalty; it’s about the victims and their rights. You wouldn’t want to be a victim, but if you were, you’d want justice.
2. Straw Man A weak argument set up to easily refute and distract attention from stronger arguments. Look at the idea that criminals who commit murder should be released after a few years of rehabilitation. Think of how unsafe our streets would be then!
3. Begging the Question Claiming the truth of the very matter in question, as if it were already an obvious conclusion. We know that they will be released and unleashed on society to repeat their crimes again and again.
4. Circular Argument The proposition is used to prove itself. Assumes the very thing it aims to prove. Related to begging the question. Once a killer, always a killer.
5. Ad Populum Appeals to a common belief of some people, often prejudicial, and states everyone holds this belief. Also called the bandwagon fallacy, as people “jump on the bandwagon” of a perceived popular view. Most people would prefer to get rid of a few “bad apples” and keep our streets safe.
6. Ad Hominem or “Argument against the Man” Argument against the man instead of his message. Stating that someone’s argument is wrong solely because of something about the person rather than about the argument itself. Our representative is a drunk and philanderer. How can we trust him on the issues of safety and family?
7. Non Sequitur or “It Does Not Follow” The conclusion does not follow from the premises. They are not related. Since the liberal 1960s, we’ve seen an increase in convicts who got let off death row.
8. Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc or “After This, Therefore because of This” It is also called a coincidental correlation. Violent death rates went down once they started publicizing executions.

Ethical Considerations in Persuasion

In his book Ethics in Human Communication, Richard Johannesen offers eleven points to consider when communicating. Although they are related to public speaking, they are also useful in business writing. You may note that many of his cautions are clearly related to the fallacies we’ve discussed. His main points reiterate many of the points across this chapter and should be kept in mind as you prepare, and present, your persuasive message Johannesen, 1996).

Do not

  • use false, fabricated, misrepresented, distorted, or irrelevant evidence to support arguments or claims;
  • intentionally use unsupported, misleading, or illogical reasoning;
  • represent yourself as informed or an “expert” on a subject when you are not;
  • use irrelevant appeals to divert attention from the issue at hand;
  • ask your audience to link your idea or proposal to emotion-laden values, motives, or goals to which it is actually not related;
  • deceive your audience by concealing your real purpose, your self-interest, the group you represent, or your position as an advocate of a viewpoint;
  • distort, hide, or misrepresent the number, scope, intensity, or undesirable features of consequences or effects;
  • use emotional appeals that lack a supporting basis of evidence or reasoning;
  • oversimplify complex, gradation-laden situations into simplistic, two-valued, either-or, polar views or choices;
  • pretend certainty where tentativeness and degrees of probability would be more accurate;
  • advocate something that you yourself do not believe in.

Aristotle said the mark of a good person, well spoken, was a clear command of the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion. He discussed the idea of perceiving the various points of view related to a topic and their thoughtful consideration. While it’s important to be able to perceive the complexity of a case, you are not asked to be a lawyer and defend a client.

In your message to persuade, consider honesty and integrity as you assemble your arguments. Your audience will appreciate your thoughtful consideration of more than one view and your understanding of the complexity of the issue, thus building your ethos, or credibility, as you present your document. Be careful not to stretch the facts, or assemble them only to prove your point; instead, prove the argument on its own merits. Deception, coercion, intentional bias, manipulation and bribery should have no place in your message to persuade.

Key Takeaway

The art of argument in writing involves presenting supportive, relevant, effective evidence for each point and doing it in a respectful and ethical manner.

Exercises

  1. Select a piece of persuasive writing such as a newspaper op-ed essay, a magazine article, or a blog post. Examine the argument, the main points, and how the writer supports them. Which strategies from the foregoing section does the writer use? Does the writer use any fallacies or violate any ethical principles? Discuss your results with your classmates.
  2. Find one slogan or logo that you perceive as persuasive and share it with your classmates.
  3. Find an example of a piece of writing that appears to want to be persuasive, but doesn’t get the job done. Write a brief review and share it with classmates.
  4. In what ways might the choice of how to organize a document involve ethics? Explain your response and discuss it with your class.

References

Fulkerson, R. (1996). The Toulmin model of argument and the teaching of composition. In E. Barbara, P. Resch, & D. Tenney (Eds.), Argument revisited: argument redefined: negotiating meaning the composition classroom (pp. 45–72). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Johannesen, R. (1996). Ethics in human communication (4th ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Toulmin, S. (1958). The uses of argument. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

This is a derivative of Business Communication for Success by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution, which was originally released and is used under CC BY-NC-SA. This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.