A Brief Introduction to Argument

from Chapter 1 of The Humble Argument

Argument is a field of study that’s been around for thousands of years, so it’s had plenty of time to become complicated and confusing. However, the basic ingredients of argument are fairly simple to understand. Here’s what you need:

  1. A question that matters to you and your readers.
  2. Honest consideration of the relevant evidence.
  3. A thoughtful decision about the best answer.
  4. Careful presentation of your answer, thinking, and evidence.

If your essay includes all of these ingredients, it’s probably an argument and thus a college essay. If any of these ingredients is missing, then it’s probably not an argument and not a college essay. It’s something that lives just down the street from the college essay, under a different name.

A Question that Matters

Arguments begin when people ask a question without a single clear answer or with several clear but competing answers, and they can’t agree about which answer is best. Sometimes these are small questions: What movie should we see? Do these pants make my butt look big? Sometimes they’re big questions: Who should be the next president? Does wilderness have an intrinsic value? Will plaid sport coats ever be popular again?

If you and your sister agree that those pants really do make your butt look big, there’s no argument. The question has one clear answer for both of you, so you have harmony — a sad harmony perhaps, a harmony that needs to eat better and exercise more, but harmony nonetheless. If, however, your sister thinks the pants make your butt look big while you think the pants have a slimming effect, then you have a question with more than one answer. You have disagreement, the potential for argument.

Besides having more than one reasonable answer, the question must also matter to both you and your audience. If my girlfriend and I disagree about how clean a bathroom needs to be, for example, we have the possibility for argument. It’s actually more than a possibility. However, the disagreement has to matter to more than one party for an argument to actually happen. If my girlfriend decides to move out, the question of bathroom cleanliness doesn’t matter to her anymore. I can leave beard stubble in the sink for a week, and there will be no argument.

If you don’t care about politics, the question of who to vote for doesn’t matter. Whatever, you think, and that’s that. If your professor has no interest in wilderness — perhaps because she’s teaching you about computer programming — then however passionate you might feel, the question of wilderness’s intrinsic value doesn’t matter enough for an argumentative essay.

Relevant Evidence

Although your own experiences and observations might provide you with a good hunch about the best answer to an argumentative question, you need to set that hunch aside for the moment and consider as broad a range of evidence as time allows. That’s because your personal views might not be as universal as they feel. The news report upon which you base your answer to the immigration situation might have left out a few facts. Your uncle Ken’s opinion about global warming is probably not accepted scientific fact.

To arrive at the best answer to the question, you need to explore any evidence you can find, and you need to do so with an open mind, considering all available answers, consulting experts, and so on. You have to be willing to abandon your hunch if that’s what the evidence suggests.

This isn’t a matter of listing the pros and cons and going with the longer list. With argument, you need to look at the evidence more generally and search out patterns within it. You have to let the evidence determine what will be the best answer. With any college writing assignment, you’re only given so much time, so when the time is up, you have to go with the best idea time allowed. Even so, don’t be premature with your conclusions. The best ideas are rarely the easiest to find.

A Thoughtful Decision

With any good argumentative question, you won’t find a right answer. You will instead find many plausible answers, and from these you will have to choose one. This will be a matter of opinion. The answer you choose will, in your opinion, be the best available answer to the question.

The word “opinion” is often used as a synonym for “guess,” an idea that you think might be true even if you have little or no reason to think so. That’s why we often add phrases like “that’s just my opinion” or “I feel that” to our guesses. Why get into a fight over an idea we already doubt?

This is not the kind of opinion we’re talking about with college essays. Your opinion should not be a guess but a thoughtful decision based on your consideration of the evidence. It should be an idea that you find reliable, and not just for yourself but for others, too. That’s the kind of opinion required by the college essay.

Careful Presentation

By “careful,” I do not mean “timid.” If your essay is a good argument, you have considered a lot of relevant evidence, and that evidence has led you to a thoughtful decision about the best answer. You’re in a good place, student writer. You should be confident about that evidence and your own thinking abilities. Just don’t overdo it. Remember that while your answer to the question might be a good idea, it’s not divinely inspired and it’s not a fact. You still have to earn its acceptance with a careful presentation of what you think and why you think so

You should be respectful of those who disagree with you. They aren’t idiots, probably. They just don’t see things as clearly as you now do. You should also show your readers how your idea makes sense in the real world. You do that by offering actual evidence from the real world. Being careful means explaining your conclusions about the meaning of that evidence, too. And the best arguments will consider alternative answers and then explain why your answer is still better. That’s the sort of care you should take when you explain and defend your opinion.

When you take the time to do all of the above, the essay you produce will be a college essay because it will be a fully formed argument.

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