Argument (Rhetoric and Composition)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In rhetoric, an argument is a course of reasoning aimed at demonstrating truth or falsehood. In composition, argument is one of the traditional modes of discourse. Adjective: argumentative.

The Use of Argument in Rhetoric

  • Daniel J. O'Keefe, a professor of communication and persuasion theory, has distinguished two senses of argument. Put simply, "Argument1, the first sense, is a thing people make, as when an editorialist argues that some public policy is wrong. Argument2 is a kind of interaction people have, as when two friends argue about where to have lunch. So argument1 comes close to the ancient rhetorical notion of argument, while argument2 legitimates the modern interactional research" (quoted by Dale Hample in "A Third Perspective on Argument." Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1985).

Rhetorical Argument and Context

  • An argument field is a subdivision of rhetorical argument as determined by context or subject matter. (See Toulmin Model.) (For the specialized use of this term in language studies, see Argument [Linguistics].)

Robert Benchley on Arguments

  • "Most of the arguments to which I am party fall somewhat short of being impressive, owing to the fact that neither I nor my opponent knows what we are talking about." (Robert Benchley)

Kinds of Arguments

  • "Argument, in its most basic form, can be described as a claim (the arguer's position on a controversial issue) which is supported by reasons and evidence to make the claim convincing to an audience. All of the forms of argument described below include these components.
  1. Debate, with participants on both sides trying to win.
  2. Courtroom argument, with lawyers pleading before a judge and jury.
  3. Dialectic, with people taking opposing views and finally resolving the conflict.
  4. Single-perspective argument, with one person arguing to convince a mass audience.
  5. One-on-one everyday argument, with one person trying to convince another.
  6. Academic inquiry, with one or more people examining a complicated issue.
  7. Negotiation, with two or more people working to reach consensus.
  8. Internal argument, or working to convince yourself. (Nancy C. Wood, Perspectives on Argument. Pearson, 2004)

General Rules for Composing a Short Argument

1. Distinguish premises and conclusion
2. Present your ideas in natural order
3. Start from reliable premises
4. Be concrete and concise
5. Avoid loaded language
6. Use consistent terms
7. Stick to one meaning for each term​ (Adapted from A Rulebook for Arguments, 3rd ed., by Anthony Weston. Hackett, 2000)

Adapting Arguments to an Audience

  • "The goals of clarity, propriety, and persuasiveness dictate that we adapt our arguments, as well as the language in which they are cast, to an audience. Even a well-constructed argument may fail to convince if it is not adapted to your actual audience."(James A. Herrick, Argumentation: Understanding and Shaping Arguments, 3rd ed. Strata, 2007)

The Lighter Side of Argument: The Argument Clinic

Patron: I came here for a good argument.
Sparring Partner: No, you didn't. You came here for an argument.
Patron: Well, an argument is not the same as contradiction.
Sparring Partner: Can be . . .
Patron: No, it can't. An argument is a connected series of statements to establish a definite proposition.
Sparring Partner: No it isn't.
Patron: Yes it is. It isn't just contradiction.
Sparring Partner: Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.
Patron: But it isn't just saying "no it isn't."
Sparring Partner: Yes it is.
Patron: No it isn't! An argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gain-saying of anything the other person says.
Sparring Partner: No it isn't. (Michael Palin and John Cleese in "The Argument Clinic." Monty Python's Flying Circus, 1972)

From the Latin, "to make clear"

Pronunciation: ARE-gyu-ment

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Nordquist, Richard. "Argument (Rhetoric and Composition)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Argument (Rhetoric and Composition). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Argument (Rhetoric and Composition)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).