Definitions and Examples of Debates

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

monks debating
Buddhist monks at a monastery in central Bhutan debate what they have learned during their monastic studies. (Kristen Elsby/Getty Images)

Broadly defined, a debate is a discussion involving opposing claims: an argument. The word comes from Old French, meaning "to beat." It's also known (in classical rhetoric) as contentio.

More specifically, a debate is a regulated contest in which two opposing sides defend and attack a proposition. Parliamentary debate is an academic event held at many schools, colleges, and universities.

Debate Examples and Observations

"In several senses, there is no correct way to debate. Standards, and even rules, differ between—and sometimes within—communities...There are at least eight distinct college debate organizations with their own rules and styles of debate."

(Gary Alan Fine, Gifted Tongues: High School Debate and Adolescent Culture. Princeton University Press, 2001)

"Skilled political debaters will first present their overall theme in the introductory statement if the opportunity to make such a statement is allowed in the debate format being used. Then they will reinforce it with answers to as many specific questions as possible. Finally, they will return to it in their concluding statement."
(Judith S. Trent and Robert Friedenberg,

Political Campaign Communication: Principles and Practices, 6th ed. Rowman & Littlefield, 2008)

Argumentation and Debate

"Argumentation is the process whereby humans use reason to communicate claims to one another. . . .
"Argumentation is useful in activities like negotiation and conflict resolution because it can be used to help people find ways to resolve their differences. But in some of these situations, differences cannot be resolved internally and an outside adjudicator must be called. These are the situations that we call debate. Thus, according to this view, debate is defined as the process of arguing about claims in situations where the outcome must be decided by an adjudicator."​

(The Debatabase Book. International Debate Education Association, 2009)

"How to argue is something people are taught. You learn it by watching other people, at the breakfast table, or in school, or on TV, or, lately, online. It’s something you can get better at, with practice, or worse at, by imitating people who do it badly. More formal debate follows established rules and standards of evidence. For centuries, learning how to argue was the centerpiece of a liberal-arts education. (Malcolm X studied that kind of debate while he was in prison. 'Once my feet got wet,' he said, 'I was gone on debating.') Etymologically and historically, the artes liberales are the arts acquired by people who are free, or liber. Debating, like voting, is a way for people to disagree without hitting one another or going to war: it’s the key to every institution that makes civic life possible, from courts to legislatures. Without debate, there can be no self-government."​

(Jill Lepore, "The State of Debate." The New Yorker, September 19, 2016)

Evidence in Debates

"Debate teaches cutting-edge research skills. Because the quality of an argument often depends on the strength of the supporting evidence, debaters quickly learn to find the best evidence. This means going beyond run-of-the-mill Internet sources to government hearings, law reviews, professional journal articles, and book-length treatments of subjects. Debaters learn how to evaluate study methodology and source credibility...Debaters also learn how to process massive amounts of data into usable argument briefs. Argument briefs bring together the strongest logical reasons and evidence supporting various positions. The ability to gather and organize evidence into logical units is a skill that is treasured by business makers, government policy-makers, legal practitioners, scientists, and educators."​

(Richard E. Edwards, Competitive Debate: The Official Guide. Alpha Books, 2008)

U.S. Presidential Debates

"American doesn't really have presidential debates. Instead, we have joint appearances where candidates recite talking points in settings so carefully controlled by party apparatchiks that the only real wrangling is over the height of the lecterns and the temperature of the drinking water. As with so many other aspects of the political process, debates that should be enlightening, perhaps even transformational, are instead stage-managed to satisfy the demands of power brokers with money and connections rather than the needs of democracy."​

(John Nichols, "Open the Debates!" The Nation, September 17, 2012)
"That's what we're missing. We're missing argument. We're missing debate. We're missing colloquy. We're missing all sorts of things. Instead, we're accepting."​

(Studs Terkel)

Women and Debates

"Following Oberlin College's admission of women in 1835, they were grudgingly permitted to have rhetorical preparation in elocution, composition, criticism, and argument. Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown helped to organize the first women's debating society there, for women were banned from public speaking in their rhetoric classroom because of its 'mixed audience' status."​

(Beth Waggenspack, "Women Emerge as Speakers: Nineteenth-Century Transformations of Women's Role in the Public Area." The Rhetoric of Western Thought, 8th ed., by James L. Golden et al. Kendall/Hunt, 2003)

Online Debates

"Debate is a maneuver where learners are divided onto opposing sides, generally as teams, to discuss a contentious issue. Learners are afforded the opportunity to improve their analytic and communication skills by formulating ideas, defending positions, and critiquing counter positions. Historically, a debate is a structured activity; however, online media permit a wider range of designs for online debates, from an inflexibly structured exercise to a process with minimal structure. When an online debate is more rigid, step-by-step instructions are provided for debate and defense, as in a formal face-to-face debate. When online debate is designed with less structure, it operates as an online discussion concerning a controversial issue."​

(Chih-Hsiung Tu, Online Collaborative Learning Communities. Libraries Unlimited, 2004)

The Lighter Side of Debates

Ms. Dubinsky: We'd like you to join our debate team.
Lisa Simpson: We have a debate team?
Ms. Dubinsky: It's the only extracurricular activity that doesn't require any equipment.
Principal Skinner: Because of budget cuts, we had to improvise. Ralph Wiggum will be your lectern.​

("To Surveil, with Love," The Simpsons, 2010)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definitions and Examples of Debates." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Definitions and Examples of Debates. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definitions and Examples of Debates." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).