23 Basic Structure and Content of Argument

Learning Objectives

  • Review the elements of argument
  • Apply strategies for writing strong arguments

Download and/or print this chapter: Reading, Thinking, and Writing for College Classes – Ch. 23 Basic Structure and Content of Argument

The Topic: What Are You Arguing About?

When a professor asks you to write an essay, it is likely that you will be expected to craft an argument that shows your careful and critical thinking about whatever topic has been assigned. If you get to choose a topic and the sources yourself, your professor expects you to choose a specific focus and to do more than simply parrot what others have written about that topic.

Whatever the assignment is, your professor wants to read something original. That doesn’t mean you have to come up with an earth-shattering new idea, but it means you have to go beyond what professors sometimes call an “information dump,” which is a paper full of information from different sources, with no originality and no real point. Your professor will want your argument to have a point, and he or she will expect your essay to contain the basic components of an argument: claim, background information, support, warrants, and counterarguments.

This chapter explains what those elements are, but it doesn’t provide a formula to follow when writing the essay. Instead, the advice offered here should help you think about ways to engage a specific audience with whatever argument you develop. You will need to come up with a claim you can support, given the assignment’s limitations, and you will need to determine how best to support that claim.

Claims: What Do You Want the Reader to Believe?

In an argument paper, the thesis is often called the main claim, and it typically appears in the first paragraph of the essay, at the end of the introduction. The thesis or main claim clearly and specifically states the perspective or way of thinking you want your readers to adopt or at the very least, to appreciate. In addition to the main claim, you will present sub-claims throughout the essay. The sub-claims are the reasons you’re offering in support of your main claim, and they, in turn, need to be supported.

Recognizing what makes a claim is key: a claim is anything the reader will not accept easily.  Even when you are quite sure that a statement in your essay is true and valid, you need to consider that statement from a reader’s perspective: will the reader accept the claim, or should you help them see why the claim is valid?

All of the claims in an essay should grow out of the evidence you’ve studied and/or generated: evidence from secondary sources, evidence you’ve gathered through primary or field research, evidence you’ve observed, evidence from your own experiences. The themust grow out of  the evidence you have, and in many cases, you will discover that you need to narrow your thesis so that you’re not promising to prove more than is possible given the length of your essay. Your professor will expect to see that the thesis grows out of your critical thinking about the evidence you’ve gathered.

One way you think carefully about the evidence you’ve gathered is to write, so it’s a good idea to begin with a tentative thesis or a provisional claim–one that is going to change as you write. The tentative thesis will almost never be the thesis you present in your final version of the essay because writing a defense of the thesis will most likely result in changing the thesis. Maybe it’s too general to support given the page limitations of the assignment, or maybe you realize that one of your sub-claims would work better as the thesis.

Background Information

Before you get into defending your claim, you will need to place your topic (and argument) into context by including relevant background material. Remember, your audience is relying on you for vital information such as definitions, historical placement, and controversial positions. This background material might appear in either your introductory paragraph(s) or your body paragraphs. How and where to incorporate background material depends a lot upon your topic, assignment, evidence, and audience. If you want to incorporate background information in your opening paragraph(s), don’t forget that a good opening should have a “hook,” something that engages the readers so they are interested in reading the rest of your essay. If you present your background information in a body paragraph, you should help your readers understand why they need the information you’re presenting.

The background information typically needs to come before you begin presenting the support for your main claim. The majority of your essay needs to present compelling support for the claim.

Support: What Makes Your Reasoning Valid?

To validate the thinking that you put forward in your claim and sub-claims, you need to demonstrate that your reasoning is based on more than just your personal opinion. You need to present evidence. Evidence, sometimes referred to as logical appeals, can take the form of research studies or scholarship, expert opinions, personal examples, observations made by yourself or others, or specific instances that make your reasoning seem sound and believable.

Before you write your first draft of an argument, you should already have plenty of evidence. Don’t begin writing an argument and hoping you can think up some evidence as you draft. Instead, list your reasons or sub-claims and evidence for each of those sub-claims. Even if you don’t like to write formal outlines, starting with a general idea of how you will support your main claim or thesis will make it more likely that you have a strong argument.

In addition to evidence, support includes ethical and emotional appeals. Ethical appeals are your attempts to show readers that you’re reasonable and fair and that you’ve researched your topic thoroughly, so it’s important that you actually research your topic thorough (you can’t show what you don’t have!). You create ethical appeals by avoiding fallacies, adopting a reasonable tone, and citing your sources so that readers know you have done good research.

Emotional appeals are the reasons your audience will find your evidence compelling. Readers are rarely moved by facts alone; if the facts don’t relate to the readers’ values, if they don’t reflect the readers’ beliefs and concerns, the audience is likely to be unconvinced. You may reference data from the Center for Disease Control, which states that 48,830 people died from gun-related injuries in the U.S in 2021, but those numbers may not touch upon a readers’ values as much as a specific example of a school shooting where several students and teachers died. Readers need to share the values or beliefs that would make them find the statistics troubling, and sometimes you will need to help them see how the statistics relate to their values and beliefs.

In addition, evidence works only if it directly supports your reasoning — and sometimes you must explain how the evidence supports your reasoning. You can’t always assume that a reader can see the connection between evidence and reason that you see or that the reader will understand what’s at stake when you present evidence. When that happens, you have a problem with a warrant.

Warrants: Why Should a Reader Accept Your Claim?

A warrant is an assumption that connects the claim or sub-claim and support; it makes the readers see why the support is meaningful. Think of warrants as the glue that holds an argument together and ensures that all pieces work together coherently and logically. Sometimes warrants are stated directly; other times, they are implied.

An important way to ensure you are properly supplying warrants within your argument is to use topic sentences for each paragraph and to question the specific support for each topic sentence. What do readers need to believe or think if they are likely to accept your support? Why would they care about the evidence you’re providing? Or play devil’s advocate: Why might some readers think this support is invalid or problematic? What can you do to help those readers accept the support? In questioning your own support, you may find it necessary to address counterarguments.

Counterargument: But What About Other Perspectives?

A good argument includes perspectives that either challenge or completely oppose claims the author makes throughout the argument. When you respectfully and thoroughly discuss perspectives or research that counters your support or that calls your own argument into question, you are showing yourself to be an ethical arguer. The following are some things of which counter arguments may consist:

  • summarizing opposing views;
  • explaining how and where you actually agree with some opposing views;
  • acknowledging weaknesses or holes in your own argument.

You have to be careful and clear that you are not conveying to a reader that you are rejecting your own claim. It is important to indicate that you are merely open to considering alternative viewpoints. Being open in this way shows that you are an ethical arguer – you are considering many viewpoints.

It goes without saying that skeptical readers will question your main claim, but to develop a strong argument, you should think about why they will question specific points you’re making related to the main claim. In other words, those who are skeptical of your main claim have good reasons for being skeptical, reasons that will most likely emerge when you’re planning and drafting your essay. Understanding different kinds of counterarguments can help you identify those specific reasons and address them.

Types of Counterarguments

Counterarguments can take various forms and serve a range of purposes such as:

  • Could someone disagree with one of your sub-claims? If so, why? Explain this opposing perspective in your own argument, and then respond to it.
  • Could someone draw a different conclusion from any of the facts or examples you present? If so, what is that different conclusion? Explain this different conclusion and then respond to it.
  • Could a reader question any of your warrants? If so, which ones would they question? Explain and then respond.
  • Could a reader offer a different explanation of an issue? If so, what might their explanation be? Describe this different explanation, and then respond to it.
  • Is there any evidence out there that could weaken your position? If so, what is it? Cite and discuss this evidence and then respond to it.

Response to Counterargument: I See That, But…

Just as it is important to include counterargument to show that you are fair-minded and balanced, you must respond to the counterargument so that a reader clearly sees that you are not agreeing with the counterargument and thus abandoning or somehow undermining your own claim. Failure to include the response to counterargument can confuse the reader. There are several ways to respond to a counterargument such as:

  • Accommodate: concede to a specific point or idea from the counterargument by explaining why that point or idea has validity. However, you must then be sure to return to your own claim, and explain why even that concession does not lead you to completely accept or support the counterargument;
  • Refute: reject the counterargument if you find it to be incorrect, fallacious, or otherwise invalid. Always explain why the counterargument perspective does not invalidate your own claim.
  • Dismiss: correct a misconception about your argument, something the reader might think you mean when, in fact, you mean something else entirely. For example, you may have a different definition of a word than the one your reader assumes, or you may be offering a viewpoint that’s similar to but significantly different from another viewpoint.

A Note About Where to Put the Counterargument

Some people have been taught to include a “counterargument” paragraph, a single paragraph that addresses and refutes the counterarguments readers might have. While this can be a good strategy, the best place to address a counterargument depends on when the counterargument might emerge in the minds of the readers as they are reading your work. If you offer evidence that a reader might question, for example, you can address that question right away; you don’t need to wait until the counterargument paragraph to present the readers’ legitimate concern. In fact, doing so would probably be confusing.Sometimes, presenting the most significant counterargument or arguments first makes sense, especially if you’re trying to show that a point on which there is a lot agreement is worth questioning. It might also work to present a counterargument at the end of the essay, after you’ve presented your best evidence but know that readers will still have questions.

What is important to remember is that wherever you place your counterargument, you should:

  • Address the counterargument(s) fully:
    • Explain what the counter perspectives are;
    • Describe them thoroughly and fairly, usually by presenting quotations from those who have a different viewpoint;
    • Cite authors who have these counter perspectives;
  • Then, respond to these counterarguments:
    • Make it clear to the reader of your argument why you concede to certain points of the counterargument or why you reject them;
    • Make it clear that you do not accept the counterargument, even though you understand it;
    • Explain any legitimate confusion your readers might have about any elements of your argument;
    • Be sure to use transitional phrases that make this clear to your reader.

Responding to Counterarguments

You do not need to attempt to do all of these things as a way to respond. Instead, choose the response strategy that makes the most sense to you for the counterargument that you find:

  • If you agree with some of the counterargument perspectives, you can concede some of their points. (“I do agree that ….”, “Some of the points made by X are valid…..”) You could then challenge the importance/usefulness of those points;
    • “However, this information does not apply to our topic because…”
  • If the counterargument perspective is one that contains different evidence than you have in your own argument, you can explain why a reader should not accept the evidence that the counterarguer presents;
  • If the counterargument perspective is one that contains a different interpretation of evidence than you have in your own argument, you can explain why a reader should not accept the interpretation of the evidence that your opponent (counterarguer) presents.

If the counterargument is an acknowledgement of evidence that threatens to weaken your argument, you must explain why and how that evidence does not, in fact, invalidate your claim. Is it because other, more convincing evidence exists to support your position? Is it because something has changed that makes that evidence less convincing? Is it because the evidence is limited somehow? You must have a good reason for accepting counter evidence but not the counteragument.

It is important to use transitional phrases in your paper to alert readers when you’re about to present a counterargument. It’s usually best to put this phrase at the beginning of a paragraph such as:

  • Researchers have challenged these claims with…
  • Critics argue that this view…
  • Some readers may point to…
  • A perspective that challenges the idea that…

Transitional phrases will again be useful to highlight your shift from counterargument to response:

  • Indeed, some of those points are valid. However, . . .
  • While I agree that . . . , it is more important to consider . . .
  • These are all compelling points. Still, other information suggests that . .
  • While I understand . . . , I cannot accept the evidence because . . .[1]

Putting It All Together

Although all arguments should include these elements–claims, background, support, warrants, and counterarguments–you have to determine for yourself how best to present each of these elements. Doing so requires that you think about your audience. You need to present all the elements of the argument in a way that makes your reasoning easy to follow and convincing. Think about the convincing arguments you’ve read or heard. Did they all follow the same format? Probably not. Most likely, the authors presented their arguments in a way that they hoped the audience would find compelling.

That said, you should keep a few points in mind:

  • you need a strong opening paragraph–something with a hook and several sentences that transition from the hook to the thesis
  • your background information should appear early on and should include only what the readers need to appreciate your argument; don’t include everything you’ve learned about your topic
  • your support should build up somehow, perhaps by starting with the least convincing reasons for accepting your claim and moving to the most convincing reasons.
  • you should include emotional appeals in the argument by telling stories, using imagery, employing figurative language, and highlighting shared values
  • you should cite all information from sources so that readers know where you found your evidence
  • you should present counterarguments fairly and address them in a way that strengthens your argument
  • you should conclude gracefully, in a way that leaves a lasting impression upon your readers

Key Takeaways

  • Knowing the elements of argument will help you write good arguments for all of your classes
  • Arguments can be structured in many different ways

  1. This section originally contained the following attribution: This page contains material from “About Writing: A Guide” by Robin Jeffrey, OpenOregon Educational Resources, Higher Education Coordination Commission: Office of Community Colleges and Workforce Development is licensed under CC BY 4.0.


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