Understanding and Building the Foundation
As discussed in the previous section, an argument in its most basic form consists of three parts:
- A claim
- Reasons to support the claim
- Evidence to support the reasons
In some cases, including only these three components will be sufficient to demonstrate the merits of your ideas and persuade the reader, but in others you will need to go beyond these, incorporating the other terms we learned in section 4.2: counterarguments, backing, qualifiers, and warrants. However, in order to effectively create these additional items, the core (claim, reason, evidence) has to be solid.
Defining and Evaluating Claims
What is a claim? Simply stated, a claim is a position or stance that the person communicating takes on an issue. Claims exist on a spectrum of complexity; for example, the claim that fruit-flavored candy is better than chocolate is rather minor in comparison to a claim that there is not enough affordable housing in the area, with the former’s focus resting (largely) on dietary preference and the latter’s reach instead extending across financial, political, and educational lines. As you can probably tell then, a claim reflects a position or stance that is the product of a range of influential factors (e.g., biological, psychological, economic, etc.), and as a position or stance, it should articulate an idea that is debatable by reasonable, educated people. However, the ability to challenge the claim is not the only criterion that must be met.
- Is the claim clearly and specifically stated? Clarity and specificity are key to ensuring that the claim’s intent and scope will be understood, so beware of using vague and/or broadly stated claims.
- Does the claim state an idea that someone not only could debate but also would want to debate? If someone would be uninterested in debating the idea, then it matters little that he/she could do so.
- Does the claim state an idea that can effectively be supported? If (sufficient and scholarly) evidence is unavailable to support a claim, then it may be worthwhile to reconsider the claim’s phrasing and/or scope so that it can be revised to state an idea that can be supported more fully.
Defining and Evaluating Reasons
If the claim states your position or stance, then the reasons explain and demonstrate why you believe that position or stance is legitimate. So, in a nutshell, reasons are your opinion for why your main opinion (thesis-level claim) is true. This is why reasons are oftentimes the topic sentences of body paragraphs because they help make sure that each paragraph functions to explain/prove the driving claim (i.e. thesis) true.
Because positions/stances are always grounded in certain beliefs and/or experiences, any time a claim is stated there must be reasons behind it. Reasons can take different forms depending on the rhetorical situation; in particular, the person communicating the claim must be mindful of who the intended audience is and what reasons that audience will find most compelling. Keep in mind that when you are writing an academic paper that is argument-based, it can be helpful to imagine that your audience holds a different position than you do on the topic, which places the burden on you to demonstrate why your ideas are sound. When you imagine your audience agrees with you from the start, you may be more likely to present weaker reasons (as well as evidence) to back your claim.
- Who is the intended audience, and what kinds of reasons are they most likely to be persuaded by? The ultimate purpose of the argument is to demonstrate the merits of the claim, so, without carefully considering who the audience is for the argument and what will appeal to them, that purpose is unlikely to be met.
- How contentious is the claim (i.e., is the claim more likely to be positively or negatively received by the intended audience), and what does that suggest in terms of not only the kinds of reasons that are needed but also the amount? If the claim reflects a highly unpopular opinion, then in order for the argument to succeed it may need not only quality reasons, but also many of them.
- Are the reasons clearly connected to the claim? If it is not apparent how a reason supports the claim, then further information may be needed to show the relationship between them.
- Which reasons are the strongest, and which are the weakest? The strength of the reasons should be an important factor when determining organization of the argument since it can impact how the audience interprets and responds to the argument.
- How complex are the reasons? Just as it is important to consider the strength of the reasons when determining the organization of the argument, it is also necessary to consider their complexity. Some reasons will be simpler to understand, and others will be more nuanced; what is the best ordering of the reasons to maximize each of their contributions to the argument?
Using Hedging/Qualifying Language
Although sometimes claims and reasons are phrased to take a firm stance on a topic or provide logical, black and white reasoning, other times it is necessary or preferable to use what is known as hedging—or qualifying—language. Hedging allows writers and speakers to express their opinion cautiously, suggesting that there may be exceptions or circumstances under which the opinion does not apply.
The hedging here can be useful in that, although there is mostly a consensus in the scientific community that global warming exists and humans are a major contributor to it, there is some dissent. Further, since the claim is referring to emissions as a “leading” factor, hedging allows for the possibility that there may be other factors that supersede it as causing global warming. While “hedges” and “qualifiers” are vocabulary terms used interchangably in academia, there is a small distinction between the two. Hedges are small words and phrases that note that the claim or reason is not applicable to all situations everywhere with everyone but they are typically undefined, and while qualifiers do the same thing in terms of limiting the claim/reason, they are typically more specific.
You can think of qualifiers more like conditions to your claim and hedges as undefined limits to help you remember the subtle differences between them.
Of course, because hedging/qualifying a claim or reason means expressing caution or uncertainty, it also can lead the audience to question the strength of the claim/reason and the authority of the person making it. The audience may interpret hedging and qualifying as a reflection of the author’s doubt in his/her stance, which can then lead them to become doubtful as well. As a result, it is important to use qualifying language strategically and only when the pros of doing so outweigh the possible cons.
Using the same example as earlier, the claim could be reworded to omit the hedging language, instead reading as,
Clearly, the claim is now much firmer in its assertion that emissions are a major reason behind global warming, expressing no doubt that this is the case. On the one hand, the assuredness of the claim will convey confidence to the audience that could then lead them to be more willing to engage with the argument; on the other hand, though, it fails to account for dissent among researchers and could be problematic in light of other contributors to global warming that may be greater influences than emissions from vehicles.
A final caution regarding qualifying language: depending on how you hedge you may end up creating vague and/or awkward phrasings that obscure your ideas. For example, let’s say the earlier claim was again reworded to state,
The inclusion of “generally” muddies the claim, resulting in confusion about what is meant. If you decide to use hedging language, then, always make sure it is appropriate and will not make it difficult for the audience to decipher what you intend.
In addition, be careful about using intensifiers, which add emphasis to the language they accompany, when hedging, since doing so can lead to clunky, nonsensical phrasings.
Remember that in your writing (as well as speaking), every word counts, so use your words purposefully.
- 4.3 (except where otherwise noted) was borrowed with minor edits and additions from "Claims, Reasons, and Evidence" by Karla Lyles and Jeanine Rauch provided by the University of Mississippi and is licensed under CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike ↵
- You can think of reasons as the answer to "why should your readers believe your thesis statement." So, essentially they are your opinion of why your opinion (thesis-level claim) is accurate. ↵
- Borrowed with minor edits and additions from Write Here, Right Now: An Interactive Introduction to Academic Writing and Research by Ryerson University and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License ↵
- Opinions like these are considered claims/opinions of taste and are considered largely unarguable in academia. ↵
- The following section (except where otherwise noted) was borrowed with minor edits and additions from "Structure of Argument" by Karla Lyles and Jeanine Rauch which is provided by the University of Mississippi and licensed under a CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike ↵
- Example borrowed from Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. G., & Williams, J. M. (2008). The craft of research (3rd. ed.). The University of Chicago Press. ↵
- Becasue while hedges/qualifiers are important to ensure that a fair and accurate argument is made, specificity in claims/reasons is vital in making sure any argument is made. ↵
- It is actually a good rule of thumb to avoid intensifiers altogether. Adding unnecessary modifiers (very, really, just, incredibly, amazing, etc.) only detracts from the strength of your claim instead of adding to it. ↵