5.1 Argument: How to Be Wrong

[1]Why do we argue with one another? What is the intention? How do we know when we have “won” or “lost” an argument? What happens then? In this chapter, we explore the functions and purposes of argument to reveal the deeper reasons we engage in this complex, frequently stressful activity and what we can gain by having an enhanced perspective on it.

Argument is not in itself an end or a purpose of communication. It is rather a means of discourse, a way of developing what we have to say. We can identify four primary aims or purposes that argument helps us accomplish.

  1. Inquiry
  2. Conviction
  3. Persuasion
  4. Negotiation

Arguing to Inquire: Forming our opinions or questioning those we already have.

The ancient Greeks used the word dialectic to identify an argument as inquiry; a more common term might be dialogue or conversation. Arguing to inquire helps us accomplish the following:

  • to form opinions
  • to question opinions
  • to reason our way through conflicts or contradictions

It requires an attitude of patient questioning under non-threatening circumstances, usually done alone or among trusted friends and associates. The primary purpose is a search for the truth. The primary audience is often the writer and fellow inquirers concerned with the same issues.


Classroom discussions; journal writing; exploratory essays; letters; late-night bull sessions in a dorm.

Arguing to Convince: Gaining assent from others through case-making.

While some inquiries may be never-ending, the goal of most inquiries is to reach a conclusion, a conviction. We seek an earned opinion, achieved through careful thought, research, and discussion. And then, we usually want others to share this conviction, to secure the assent of an audience by means of reason rather than by force.


  • Arguing to inquire centers on asking questions: we want to expose and examine what we think.
  • Arguing to convince requires us to make a case, to get others to agree with what we think. While the inquiry is a cooperative use of argument, convincing is competitive. We put our case against the case of others in an effort to win the assent of readers.
  • Examples: a lawyer’s brief; newspaper editorials; case studies; most academic writing

Arguing to Persuade: Moving others to action through rational, emotional, personal, and stylistic appeals.

While arguing to convince seeks to earn the assent of readers or listeners, arguing to persuade attempts to influence their behavior, to move them to act upon the conviction. Persuasion aims to close the gap between assent and action. To convince focuses on the logic of an argument; to persuade will often rely on the personal appeal of the writer (what Aristotle called ethos) and involve an appeal to an audience’s emotions (pathos). In addition to these personal and emotional appeals, persuasion exploits the resources of language more fully than convincing does.


  • In general, the more academic the audience or the more purely intellectual the issue, the more likely that the writing task involves an argument to convince rather than to persuade. In most philosophy or science assignments, for example, the writer would usually focus on conviction rather than persuasion, confining the argument primarily to thesis, reasons, and evidence. But when you are working with public issues, with matters of policy or questions of right and wrong, persuasion’s fuller range of appeal is usually appropriate.
  • Persuasion begins with difference and, when it works, ends with identity.  We expect that before reading our argument, readers will differ from us in beliefs, attitudes, and/or desires. A successful persuasive argument brings readers and writer together, creating a sense of connection between parties.
  • Examples: Political speeches, sermons, advertising

Arguing to Negotiate: Exploring differences of opinion in the hope of reaching agreement and/or cooperation.

If efforts to convince and/or persuade the audience have failed, the participants must often turn to negotiation, resolving the conflict in order to maintain a satisfactory working relationship.

Each side must listen closely to understand the other side’s case and the emotional commitments and values that support that case. The aim of negotiation is to build consensus, usually by making and asking for concessions. Dialogue plays a key role, bringing us full circle back to argument as inquiry. Negotiation often depends on collaborative problem-solving.


Diplomatic negotiations, labor relations, documents in organizational decision-making; essays seeking resolution of conflict between competing parties; also frequent in private life when dealing with disagreements among friends and family members.

The Importance of Being Wrong

It is important to understand that and come to accept that you will be, at multiple points in your academic, personal, and professional careers, wrong. Below are two videos that explore the science and logic of why we argue and why being wrong is not something we should try to avoid at all costs or view as “losing.” Collaboration and clarification of ideas are the highest pursuits of argumentative communication and when we are proven wrong, we are given the opportunity to learn, grow, and enhance our understanding of the complex and vibrant world we inhabit.

Both of these talks (above) address the dangers of being too close to our own ideas. They offer examples and insights that show what can go wrong when we would rather “feel” right than “be” right. They also address the opportunities that open up to us when we allow ourselves to be detached enough from our ideas to create the space for growth, doubt, investigation, and eventually increased understanding and awareness. When we believe we are right about everything all of the time, we miss the opportunities to learn from one another and from each new perspective we encounter.

  1. 5.1 (except where otherwise noted) was borrowed with minor edits and additions from Critical Thinking by Andrew Gurevich which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License


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