Argument – The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2023)

What this handout is about

This handout will define what an argument is and explain why you need one in most of your academic essays.

Arguments are everywhere

You may be surprised to hear that the word “argument” does not have to be written anywhere in your assignment for it to be an important part of your task. In fact, making an argument—expressing a point of view on a subject and supporting it with evidence—is often the aim of academic writing. Your instructors may assume that you know this and thus may not explain the importance of arguments in class.

Most material you learn in college is or has been debated by someone, somewhere, at some time. Even when the material you read or hear is presented as a simple fact, it may actually be one person’s interpretation of a set of information. Instructors may call on you to examine that interpretation and defend it, refute it, or offer some new view of your own. In writing assignments, you will almost always need to do more than just summarize information that you have gathered or regurgitate facts that have been discussed in class. You will need to develop a point of view on or interpretation of that material and provide evidence for your position.

Consider an example. For nearly 2000 years, educated people in many Western cultures believed that bloodletting—deliberately causing a sick person to lose blood—was the most effective treatment for a variety of illnesses. The claim that bloodletting is beneficial to human health was not widely questioned until the 1800s, and some physicians continued to recommend bloodletting as late as the 1920s. Medical practices have now changed because some people began to doubt the effectiveness of bloodletting; these people argued against it and provided convincing evidence. Human knowledge grows out of such differences of opinion, and scholars like your instructors spend their lives engaged in debate over what claims may be counted as accurate in their fields. In their courses, they want you to engage in similar kinds of critical thinking and debate.

Argumentation is not just what your instructors do. We all use argumentation on a daily basis, and you probably already have some skill at crafting an argument. The more you improve your skills in this area, the better you will be at thinking critically, reasoning, making choices, and weighing evidence.

Making a claim

What is an argument? In academic writing, an argument is usually a main idea, often called a “claim” or “thesis statement,” backed up with evidence that supports the idea. In the majority of college papers, you will need to make some sort of claim and use evidence to support it, and your ability to do this well will separate your papers from those of students who see assignments as mere accumulations of fact and detail. In other words, gone are the happy days of being given a “topic” about which you can write anything. It is time to stake out a position and prove why it is a good position for a thinking person to hold. See our handout on thesis statements.

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Claims can be as simple as “Protons are positively charged and electrons are negatively charged,” with evidence such as, “In this experiment, protons and electrons acted in such and such a way.” Claims can also be as complex as “Genre is the most important element to the contract of expectations between filmmaker and audience,” using reasoning and evidence such as, “defying genre expectations can create a complete apocalypse of story form and content, leaving us stranded in a sort of genre-less abyss.” In either case, the rest of your paper will detail the reasoning and evidence that have led you to believe that your position is best.

When beginning to write a paper, ask yourself, “What is my point?” For example, the point of this handout is to help you become a better writer, and we are arguing that an important step in the process of writing effective arguments is understanding the concept of argumentation. If your papers do not have a main point, they cannot be arguing for anything. Asking yourself what your point is can help you avoid a mere “information dump.” Consider this: your instructors probably know a lot more than you do about your subject matter. Why, then, would you want to provide them with material they already know? Instructors are usually looking for two things:

  1. Proof that you understand the material
  2. A demonstration of your ability to use or apply the material in ways that go beyond what you have read or heard.

This second part can be done in many ways: you can critique the material, apply it to something else, or even just explain it in a different way. In order to succeed at this second step, though, you must have a particular point to argue.

Arguments in academic writing are usually complex and take time to develop. Your argument will need to be more than a simple or obvious statement such as “Frank Lloyd Wright was a great architect.” Such a statement might capture your initial impressions of Wright as you have studied him in class; however, you need to look deeper and express specifically what caused that “greatness.” Your instructor will probably expect something more complicated, such as “Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture combines elements of European modernism, Asian aesthetic form, and locally found materials to create a unique new style,” or “There are many strong similarities between Wright’s building designs and those of his mother, which suggests that he may have borrowed some of her ideas.” To develop your argument, you would then define your terms and prove your claim with evidence from Wright’s drawings and buildings and those of the other architects you mentioned.

Evidence

Do not stop with having a point. You have to back up your point with evidence. The strength of your evidence, and your use of it, can make or break your argument. See our handout on evidence. You already have the natural inclination for this type of thinking, if not in an academic setting. Think about how you talked your parents into letting you borrow the family car. Did you present them with lots of instances of your past trustworthiness? Did you make them feel guilty because your friends’ parents all let them drive? Did you whine until they just wanted you to shut up? Did you look up statistics on teen driving and use them to show how you didn’t fit the dangerous-driver profile? These are all types of argumentation, and they exist in academia in similar forms.

Every field has slightly different requirements for acceptable evidence, so familiarize yourself with some arguments from within that field instead of just applying whatever evidence you like best. Pay attention to your textbooks and your instructor’s lectures. What types of argument and evidence are they using? The type of evidence that sways an English instructor may not work to convince a sociology instructor. Find out what counts as proof that something is true in that field. Is it statistics, a logical development of points, something from the object being discussed (art work, text, culture, or atom), the way something works, or some combination of more than one of these things?

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Be consistent with your evidence. Unlike negotiating for the use of your parents’ car, a college paper is not the place for an all-out blitz of every type of argument. You can often use more than one type of evidence within a paper, but make sure that within each section you are providing the reader with evidence appropriate to each claim. So, if you start a paragraph or section with a statement like “Putting the student seating area closer to the basketball court will raise player performance,” do not follow with your evidence on how much more money the university could raise by letting more students go to games for free. Information about how fan support raises player morale, which then results in better play, would be a better follow-up. Your next section could offer clear reasons why undergraduates have as much or more right to attend an undergraduate event as wealthy alumni—but this information would not go in the same section as the fan support stuff. You cannot convince a confused person, so keep things tidy and ordered.

Counterargument

One way to strengthen your argument and show that you have a deep understanding of the issue you are discussing is to anticipate and address counterarguments or objections. By considering what someone who disagrees with your position might have to say about your argument, you show that you have thought things through, and you dispose of some of the reasons your audience might have for not accepting your argument. Recall our discussion of student seating in the Dean Dome. To make the most effective argument possible, you should consider not only what students would say about seating but also what alumni who have paid a lot to get good seats might say.

You can generate counterarguments by asking yourself how someone who disagrees with you might respond to each of the points you’ve made or your position as a whole. If you can’t immediately imagine another position, here are some strategies to try:

  • Do some research. It may seem to you that no one could possibly disagree with the position you are arguing, but someone probably has. For example, some people argue that a hotdog is a sandwich. If you are making an argument concerning, for example, the characteristics of an exceptional sandwich, you might want to see what some of these people have to say.
  • Talk with a friend or with your teacher. Another person may be able to imagine counterarguments that haven’t occurred to you.
  • Consider your conclusion or claim and the premises of your argument and imagine someone who denies each of them. For example, if you argued, “Cats make the best pets. This is because they are clean and independent,” you might imagine someone saying, “Cats do not make the best pets. They are dirty and needy.”

Once you have thought up some counterarguments, consider how you will respond to them—will you concede that your opponent has a point but explain why your audience should nonetheless accept your argument? Will you reject the counterargument and explain why it is mistaken? Either way, you will want to leave your reader with a sense that your argument is stronger than opposing arguments.

When you are summarizing opposing arguments, be charitable. Present each argument fairly and objectively, rather than trying to make it look foolish. You want to show that you have considered the many sides of the issue. If you simply attack or caricature your opponent (also referred to as presenting a “straw man”), you suggest that your argument is only capable of defeating an extremely weak adversary, which may undermine your argument rather than enhance it.

It is usually better to consider one or two serious counterarguments in some depth, rather than to give a long but superficial list of many different counterarguments and replies.

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Be sure that your reply is consistent with your original argument. If considering a counterargument changes your position, you will need to go back and revise your original argument accordingly.

Audience

Audience is a very important consideration in argument. Take a look at our handout on audience. A lifetime of dealing with your family members has helped you figure out which arguments work best to persuade each of them. Maybe whining works with one parent, but the other will only accept cold, hard statistics. Your kid brother may listen only to the sound of money in his palm. It’s usually wise to think of your audience in an academic setting as someone who is perfectly smart but who doesn’t necessarily agree with you. You are not just expressing your opinion in an argument (“It’s true because I said so”), and in most cases your audience will know something about the subject at hand—so you will need sturdy proof. At the same time, do not think of your audience as capable of reading your mind. You have to come out and state both your claim and your evidence clearly. Do not assume that because the instructor knows the material, he or she understands what part of it you are using, what you think about it, and why you have taken the position you’ve chosen.

Critical reading

Critical reading is a big part of understanding argument. Although some of the material you read will be very persuasive, do not fall under the spell of the printed word as authority. Very few of your instructors think of the texts they assign as the last word on the subject. Remember that the author of every text has an agenda, something that he or she wants you to believe. This is OK—everything is written from someone’s perspective—but it’s a good thing to be aware of. For more information on objectivity and bias and on reading sources carefully, read our handouts on evaluating print sources and reading to write.

Take notes either in the margins of your source (if you are using a photocopy or your own book) or on a separate sheet as you read. Put away that highlighter! Simply highlighting a text is good for memorizing the main ideas in that text—it does not encourage critical reading. Part of your goal as a reader should be to put the author’s ideas in your own words. Then you can stop thinking of these ideas as facts and start thinking of them as arguments.

When you read, ask yourself questions like “What is the author trying to prove?” and “What is the author assuming I will agree with?” Do you agree with the author? Does the author adequately defend her argument? What kind of proof does she use? Is there something she leaves out that you would put in? Does putting it in hurt her argument? As you get used to reading critically, you will start to see the sometimes hidden agendas of other writers, and you can use this skill to improve your own ability to craft effective arguments.

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial. We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

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Anson, Chris M., and Robert A. Schwegler. 2010. The Longman Handbook for Writers and Readers, 6th ed. New York: Longman.

Booth, Wayne C., Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, Joseph Bizup, and William T. FitzGerald. 2016. The Craft of Research, 4th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ede, Lisa. 2004. Work in Progress: A Guide to Academic Writing and Revising, 6th ed. Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s.

Gage, John T. 2005. The Shape of Reason: Argumentative Writing in College, 4th ed. New York: Longman.

Lunsford, Andrea A., and John J. Ruszkiewicz. 2016. Everything’s an Argument, 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s.

Rosen, Leonard J., and Laurence Behrens. 2003. The Allyn & Bacon Handbook, 5th ed. New York: Longman.

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Argument – The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 License.
You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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FAQs

What is the main argument of this essay? ›

This is often referred to as the 'thesis' of an essay, and simply means the crucial idea that connects the many different parts of your study into a coherent piece of writing.

Can you say I in an argumentative essay? ›

Even though you're writing your argument from a single opinion, don't use first person language—"I think," "I feel," "I believe,"—to present your claims. Doing so is repetitive, since by writing the essay you're already telling the audience what you feel, and using first person language weakens your writing voice.

What is the argument of a story? ›

An argument in literature is a brief summary, often in prose, of a poem or section of a poem or other work. It is often appended to the beginning of each chapter, book, or canto. They were common during the Renaissance as a way to orient a reader within a large work.

How do you avoid first person in academic writing? ›

Try recasting sentences that start with 'I' more objectively, so that the focus is on the what – the emotion, the object, the person, the action and so on – rather than the sense being used to experience it or the I-narrator doing the experience. Use the principles of free indirect speech to reduce your 'I' count.

How do you start an argument essay? ›

In the first paragraph of an argument essay, students should set the context by reviewing the topic in a general way. Next the author should explain why the topic is important (exigence) or why readers should care about the issue. Lastly, students should present the thesis statement.

What is author's main argument in the passage? ›

Answer. Answer: The argument of a passage, sometimes also called the main claim or the thesis, is the author's point of view about the topic.

What are good topics for argumentative essays? ›

Argumentative Essay Topics for College
  • Are men and women equally emotional?
  • Are printed books best than e-readers?
  • Do you think that the drinking age should be lowered?
  • Are parents responsible for childhood obesity?
  • Do you think that college should free?
  • Do you think that beauty standards be more inclusive?

How do you avoid I in an essay? ›

Ways of Avoiding Pronouns “I”, “You” and “We” in an Essay
  1. Replacing it with an acceptable wording. This is a very good strategy for replacing “I” in an essay. ...
  2. Using passive voice instead of pronouns. ...
  3. Using a Third-Person Perspective. ...
  4. Use of objective language. ...
  5. Being specific and using strong verbs and adjectives.
Aug 1, 2021

What is a good argumentative essay? ›

An argumentative essay is an essay that uses evidence and facts to support the claim it's making. Its purpose is to persuade the reader to agree with the argument being made. A good argumentative essay will use facts and evidence to support the argument, rather than just the author's thoughts and opinions.

What is the main argument? ›

A main argument, or thesis, is presented first. 2. Then, different sections are formed with the purpose of supporting the main argument. 3. Within those sections, we find paragraphs which hold the purpose of supporting the sections that support the thesis.

What is the argument or problem in a story? ›

In contrast, a story is an argument: a course of logical and emotional reasoning aimed at proving that a particular approach is either a good one, or a bad one. Complete stories argue their point in such a way that they leave little for the audience to reject or refute.

What is a good example of an argument? ›

For example: I have a very strong feeling that my lottery ticket is the winning ticket, so I'm quite confident I will win a lot of money tonight. If the argument is strong, there are again two cases: Firstly, the argument has false premises.

Is it OK to use first person in academic writing? ›

APA prefers that writers use the first person for clarity and self-reference. To promote clear communication, writers should use the first person, rather than passive voice or the third person, to indicate the action the writer is taking.

How do you say I agree without using first person? ›

Examples of personal opinion: “I believe…” “I think…” “In my opinion…” “I would say that…” The third person point of view is often used as an alternative to first person as the “voice” in academic writing.

Can I use I in an essay? ›

In academic or college writing, most formal essays and research reports use third person pronouns and do not use “I” or “you.”

What to say instead of I agree in an essay? ›

Synonyms of AGREE are CONCUR and ACCEPT.

How many paragraphs should an argumentative essay have? ›

A typical argumentative essay comprises three or more paragraphs that explain the reasons why you support your thesis. Each body paragraph should cover a different idea or piece of evidence and contain a topic sentence that clearly and concisely explains why the reader should agree with your position.

What words can you not use in an argumentative essay? ›

The following guidelines should help you maintain a formal writing voice in your essays.
  • Do not use first-person pronouns ("I," "me," "my," "we," "us," etc.). ...
  • Avoid addressing readers as "you." ...
  • Avoid the use of contractions. ...
  • Avoid colloquialism and slang expressions. ...
  • Avoid nonstandard diction.

What is the argument being discussed in the passage? ›

The argument of a passage is the author's point of view about the topic. The argument is sometimes also called the main claim or the thesis.

What is the significance of examining the author's main argument and point of view? ›

To review, the point of view of a written piece is the attitude or opinion on the topic. As the reader, you should evaluate, or assess the value, of the author's point of view. This is especially true when two writers have different opinions on the same topic.

How do you identify an argument in a passage? ›

There are three steps to argument identification: Understand the Context: Is someone trying to convince you of something? Identify the Conclusion: What are they trying to convince you? Identify the Reasons: Why do they think you should believe them?

What is the easiest topic to write an essay? ›

Essay Topic Suggestions
1Your first day at a new school or college
7The day you decided to change your life
8The experience of being lost (or of being frustrated)
9A communication barrier
10Your first time away from home
5 more rows

What are good argumentative topics 2021? ›

Argumentative Prompt Topics
  • Technology & Social Media.
  • School.
  • College & Career.
  • Mental & Physical Health.
  • Race & Gender.
  • Parenting & Childhood.
  • Ethics & Morality.
  • Government & Politics.
Feb 23, 2021

What should you never do when writing an essay? ›

  1. Fail to address the question's topic in your introduction. ...
  2. Stray from the focus of the question (especially in the conclusion) ...
  3. Insert quotes without introducing them or relating them back to the topic. ...
  4. Fail to provide references. ...
  5. Use informal language, colloquialisms, or overuse rhetorical questions.

What words are not counted in essays? ›

The words 'a', 'the', 'and', 'to', 'an', 'in', 'or', 'at' along with other small prepositions and conjunctions make up around 15 to 20 percent of a decent essay. That's a large percentage of words to ignore. Also, numbers expressed as numerals (like '9' or '200') or date or time are counted as words.

Can you cuss in a college essay? ›

Avoid swearing in a college essay, since admissions officers' opinions of profanity will vary. In some cases, it might be okay to use a vulgar word, such as in dialogue or quotes that make an important point in your essay.

What is argumentative text example? ›

An argument text is a text where the writer is either 'for' or 'against' an issue or subject, or presents the case for both sides. A common example of an argument text a kid may write about in primary school is whether students should have to wear school uniforms.

What is example of argumentative paragraph? ›

Example: Although I disagree with much that those who oppose animal testing say, I fully endorse their final conclusion that there are many better alternatives to animal testing.

What are the 4 types of arguments? ›

Different Types Of Arguments: Deductive And Inductive Arguments
  • Type 1: Deductive Arguments.
  • Type 2: Inductive Arguments.
  • Type 3: Toulmin Argument.
  • Type 4: Rogerian Argument.
Sep 21, 2020

What are the 3 types of argument? ›

Aristotle postulated three argumentative appeals: logical, ethical, and emotional. Strong arguments have a balance of all of three, though logical (logos) is essential for a strong, valid argument. Appeals, however, can also be misused, creating arguments that are not credible.

What is an example of argument in a sentence? ›

His argument did not convince his opponents. Let us accept, for the sake of argument, that she is right. Don't you want to hear both sides of the argument? They were always getting into arguments about politics.

What are the main parts of an argumentative essay? ›

Like other types of essays, argumentative essays typically have three main sections: the introduction, the body, and the conclusion.

What is argumentative essay and examples? ›

In conclusion, we can say that argumentative essays are convincing essays that take the aid of facts and evidence to sustain their side of the argument. Most argumentative examples follow either the Classical model, Toulmin model, or the Rogerian model.

What are the 5 parts of an argumentative essay? ›

Information is used, but it is organized based on these major components of an argument: claim, reason, evidence, counter-claim, and rebuttal.

How does the essay say meat eaters feel about vegans apex? ›

In the essay "A Defense of Veganism" what meat-eaters feel about vegans is option B. Meat eaters think vegans' ideas are "crazy" and "horrific". The author writes about a protest that was held by vegans outside a restaurant bearing a giant sign with the word "murder" in it.

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