Arguments

Background

This page is part of a series of pages on the University of Chicago’s “Little Red Schoolhouse” (LRS) approach to writing (see below). More specifically, this page discusses how to write effective arguments in academic papers by applying the advice in The Craft of Research (3rd ed.) by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams (Joseph Bizup and William T. Fitzgerald contributed to later editions).

This page complements both (1) the discussion on “Structuring Arguments” on my Essentials of Graduate Writing page and (2) my Style and Clarity page, which discusses the LRS approach to writing clearly.

The “Little Red Schoolhouse”

Joseph M. Williams was a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Chicago and was one of the founders of the university’s famous writing program, often referred to as “the Little Red Schoolhouse” (LRS) after the nickname of its iconic academic writing course. That program’s methods and insights regarding academic writing can be helpful for students and instructors at all levels (undergrad, graduate, and professional). This page summarizes some of the key ideas of the LRS approach to writing arguments.

Arguments – Key Ideas

Prefatory Note: The following discussion is based largely on (read: shamelessly plagiarized from) the excellent text The Craft of Research by Booth, Colomb, and Williams, but all errors and omissions are my own.

Arguments are used in almost every genre of writing, although in graduate school you’ll mainly be employing arguments in paragraphs, essay responses, and papers. Of course, by “argument” I don’t mean “disagreement” or “angry conflict” (the colloquial sense), but instead something more formal like: “an organized set of statements that support a conclusion.” As Booth, Colomb, and Williams state in The Craft of Research, the core of this latter kind of argument is:

A CLAIM which is based on REASONS which in turn are supported by EVIDENCE.

An example of a simple argument is:

CLAIM: Food manufacturers should reduce the amount of sugar added to food items.

REASON: Because overconsumption of sugar is bad for people’s health.

EVIDENCE: Research has shown that overconsumption of sugar is implicated in chronic health disorders such as obesity and cardiovascular disease (Bleich & Vercammen, 2020; Schmidt, 2014; Yang et al., 2014).

Note that the evidence above is a paraphrase of peer-reviewed research on the topic (with citations in parentheses–see my pages on APA and Plagiarism for more info on citations and paraphrases). Using such paraphrases as evidence is a common strategy in graduate research papers, but paraphrases are certainly not the only form of evidence that can be included in a paper. For example, if you’re collecting your own data for a research study (e.g. a thesis, dissertation, or journal article), or you’re conducting a novel analysis of an existing data set, the original “primary” data set would obviously count as evidence. In the humanities, primary textual sources would also count as evidence (for example, if you’re writing a paper about the ideas of Descartes, primary data would include Descartes’s original writings).

The three elements above (claim, reasons, evidence) represent the bare minimum required for a successful argument. However, as Williams and friends explain, more sophisticated arguments tend to add two additional elements, for a total of 5:

The 5 Key Elements of an Argument

  1. Claim – The main idea being asserted in the argument (also called a “thesis statement”). It answers the question: What am I claiming?
  2. Reasons – Explanations for why the claim makes sense or is justified. Reasons answer the questions: Why should anyone believe my claim(s)? Why am I claiming this? What reasons back up my claims? Reasons can also be thought of as smaller sub-claims that support the bigger main claim.
  3. Evidence – The facts, observations, and data (including citations to reputable research sources) that back up your reasons (remember: reasons can be thought of as sub-claims that support the main claim). Evidence answers the questions: What facts, data, or observations back up, or support, my reasons? What evidence supports my reasons? What facts make me convinced that my reasons are justifiable?
  4. Acknowledgement and Response (also known as a “Counter-Argument”)-A statement of one or more possible objections to your argument, followed by a rebuttal (or refutation) that explains why these objections aren’t fatal to your argument (e.g., you show that these objections or flawed, or you show that your argument succeeds in spite of them). The acknowledgement and response answers questions like: What if someone argued… against my argument? How would I respond? Do I acknowledge and respond to possible objections? Have I acknowledged alternative ways of looking at my topic?
  5. Warrant – A general principle or idea that shows why your reasons and evidence are good reasons and evidence for your claim. That is, the warrant shows how and why the reasons and evidence are relevant to your claim. It answers the questions: What principle (warrant) makes my reason(s) and evidence relevant to my claim(s)? How are my reasons and evidence connected to my claim?

An example will help make sense of the last 2 categories. Let’s return to a slightly modified version of the argument from earlier:

Food manufacturers should reduce the amount of sugar added to food items (claim), because overconsumption of sugar is bad for people’s health (reason). For example, research has shown that overconsumption of sugar is implicated in chronic health disorders such as obesity and cardiovascular disease (Bleich & Vercammen, 2020; Schmidt, 2014; Yang et al., 2014) (evidence).

What’s a possible objection to this argument? Well, a reader might think: “Sure, it may be true that eating too much sugar is bad for you. But why is it the food manufacturer’s fault? Shouldn’t the responsibility be on consumers to make healthy choices about what they buy and eat?”

To make your argument more convincing, it’s a good idea to anticipate, acknowledge, and respond to such potential objections. Here’s an example of what that might look like:

Food manufacturers should reduce the amount of sugar added to food items {claim}, because overconsumption of sugar is bad for people’s health {reason}. For example, research has shown that overconsumption of sugar is implicated in chronic health disorders such as obesity and cardiovascular disease (Bleich & Vercammen, 2020; Schmidt, 2014; Yang et al., 2014) {evidence}. Some may argue that consumers, rather than food manufacturers, should be held responsible for making healthy choices {acknowledgement of counter-claim}. However, making such healthy choices is often more difficult than it might seem. For many staple foods like bread and cereal, all the major manufacturers add sugar to most offerings, so that many consumers may have no option outside of shopping at expensive specialty health food stores {response}.

So far, so good. But notice that the response part above counts as another sub-claim. That is, it’s an assertion that requires evidence to back it up. The skeptical reader might reasonably ask: How do I know that so many food manufacturers are adding sugar to all their major items? Is there any evidence to back this up?

In fact, you should assume that the reader will be skeptical. As the philosopher Jim Pryor states, it’s helpful to:

“pretend that your reader is lazy, stupid, and mean. He’s lazy in that he doesn’t want to figure out what your convoluted sentences are supposed to mean, and he doesn’t want to figure out what your argument is, if it’s not already obvious. He’s stupid, so you have to explain everything you say to him in simple, bite-sized pieces. And he’s mean, so he’s not going to read your paper charitably. (For example, if something you say admits of more than one interpretation, he’s going to assume you meant the less plausible thing.) If you understand the material you’re writing about, and if you aim your paper at such a reader, you’ll probably get an A.”

Source.

So, to satisfy our skeptical reader (or “lazy, stupid, and mean” reader, in Pryor’s words) let’s add some evidence to back up our response:

Food manufacturers should reduce the amount of sugar added to food items {claim}, because overconsumption of sugar is bad for people’s health {reason}. For example, research has shown that overconsumption of sugar is implicated in chronic health disorders such as obesity and cardiovascular disease (Bleich & Vercammen, 2020; Schmidt, 2014; Yang et al., 2014) {evidence}. Some may argue that consumers, rather than food manufacturers, should be held responsible for making healthy choices {acknowledgement of counter-claim}. However, making such healthy choices is often more difficult than it might seem. For many staple foods like bread and cereal, all the major manufacturers add sugar to most offerings, so that many consumers may have no option outside of shopping at expensive specialty health food stores {response}. In fact, a recent survey of small and medium sized grocery stores found that 80% of bread products were sourced by 4 main manufacturers, all of whom added sugar to 90% of their products {evidence to back up response}.

(full disclosure: I simply made up the evidence included in this paragraph, so don’t cite it as a fact in your academic work)

That covers the acknowledgement and response. But what about a warrant? Recall that a warrant is a general principle that explains how the reasons and evidence are relevant to the original claim. So, if we can safely assume that the reader will already see this connection (without our help), then we can omit the warrant.

Take the following example inspired by Booth, Colomb, and Williams:

We should leave the party now {claim} because we have to get up early tomorrow {reason}.

Does this mini-argument need a warrant? Well, let’s imagine what a warrant for this argument would look like. One possibility is something like “When we have to get up early the next day, we shouldn’t stay out too late the night before,” but this warrant would be so obvious to almost anyone that it’s better to omit it. Overexplaining such an obvious principle would bore the reader/listener, and even insult their intelligence.

But how about this example:

The problem of overpopulation will become less serious in the coming decades {claim} because the number of women pursuing advanced degrees is increasing each year {reason}.

A skeptical reader might respond: “Sure, I believe you about the number of women pursuing advanced degrees. But what does that have to do with overpopulation?”

So, let’s add a warrant:

The problem of overpopulation will become less serious in the coming decades {claim} because the number of women pursuing advanced degrees is increasing each year {reason}. College-educated women are more likely to delay starting a family and on average have fewer children than less-educated women. {warrant}.

Returning to our original argument about added sugar in food: does it need a warrant? Maybe. It depends on who we think the reader is. As Larry McInerney has pithily observed:

The main function of (nearly all) academic writing is to help readers understand better something they want to understand well.

Source.

In other words, our job is to make our ideas clear and understandable to the reader. So we have to ask ourselves: Who is our intended reader? What do we expect them to know already?

Based on the answers to these questions, we can decide whether the reader (i.e., our intended audience) would need to have the warrant spelled out, or whether they would take the warrant for granted (or assumed). For example, if the argument were to appear as part of an opinion piece in a consumers’ rights newsletter, we might not need to provide a warrant–the readers could reasonably be expected to be onboard with our critical stance toward food manufacturers. On the other hand, if we were writing the argument for a paper in a moral philosophy class, we might be expected to provide warrants for all of our reasons and claims.

Suppose we decide that the argument does need a warrant. Adding it to the argument might look something like this:

Food manufacturers should reduce the amount of sugar added to food items {claim}, because overconsumption of sugar is bad for people’s health {reason}. For example, research has shown that overconsumption of sugar is implicated in chronic health disorders such as obesity and cardiovascular disease (Bleich & Vercammen, 2020; Schmidt, 2014; Yang et al., 2014) {evidence}. Because of the severe health consequences of such chronic conditions, food manufacturers have an ethical responsibility to avoid contributing to these conditions {warrant}. However, some may argue that consumers, rather than food manufacturers, should be held responsible for making healthy choices {acknowledgement of counter-claim}. Yet making such healthy choices is often more difficult than it might seem. For many staple foods like bread and cereal, all the major manufacturers add sugar to most offerings, so that many consumers may have no option outside of shopping at expensive specialty health food stores {response}. In fact, a recent survey of small and medium sized grocery stores found that 80% of bread products were sourced by 4 main manufacturers, all of whom added sugar to 90% of their products {evidence to back up response}.

Finally, keep in mind that arguments do not have to follow the order represented above, in which the claim comes first, the reasons come second, and so on. While that’s a perfectly reasonable approach, there are other equally-reasonable ones. Consider this example:

Research into human genetics shows that the majority of human gene variants appear in populations all over the world (Rosenberg et al., 2002) {reason}. In addition, the groups that are commonly called “races” do not have “distinct, unifying genetic identities” (Chou, 2017, para. 8; Rosenberg et al., 2002) {reason}. For example, the genetic diversity within particular “races” is greater than the average genetic difference between “races,” making it impossible to demarcate separate, distinct racial groups (Norton et al., 2019) {evidence}. For all these reasons, and many others, scientists tend to regard the category of “race” as a social construction that is not rooted in biological reality {claim}.

In this argument, the reasons come first, followed by some evidence. Only then is the main claim stated. The point is: while all strong arguments will contain at least the 3 core elements of claim, reason, and evidence–and many will also include warrants and acknowledgements and responses–you, as the writer, can use your intelligence and creativity to remix and reorder these elements as you see fit. Just don’t forget your main goal: to express your ideas clearly, simply, and directly to the reader.

Workshop Recording (69 min)

You can view or download a recording of my workshop on argument (from April 15, 2022) by clicking on the image below:

Note: The browser plays a 1-hour preview. For videos longer than 1 hour, download the file and watch it from your computer (Steps: 1. Click on the video to open the Dropbox video page. 2. Use the “download” button, usually located on the top left of the page).

You can also view or download the PowerPoint slides from that workshop below:

Handouts and Other Resources

Cain Project Writing Modules

The Cain Project in Engineering and Professional Communication has an excellent set of 3 modules based on the work of Williams, Colomb, Booth, and others. The third module focuses on many of the topics discussed on this page.

You can download module one in PowerPoint format here:

You can also download all 3 modules in PDF “book” form here:

Handout from UPenn

Below, you can download a PDF-handout version of a helpful page from UPenn. The page is still available, but some of the images may not display properly anymore, which is why I created this PDF version (courtesy of the WayBack Machine archive):

Further Reading

Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. G., & Williams, J. M. (2008), The craft of research (3rd ed.). University Of Chicago Press.

Williams, J. M., & Colomb, G. G. (2003). The craft of argument (2nd. ed.). Pearson.

%d bloggers like this: