Dylan Altman, Anna Mills, Tracey Watts
Every argument sets out to convince readers or listeners. In that sense, every argument has the same purpose. Yet writers often aim for targeted goals. Sometimes, writers may want an argument not just to convince, but to lead to action. For example, when an argument is part of an advertisement, the goal is clear: “Buy me!” The goal of a stump speech leads to action as well; politicians try to get listeners to cast their votes in support of a candidate. Sometimes, however, the purpose of an argument is simply to wrestle with a topic in order to begin to develop a more informed opinion. Sometimes an argument involves a definition or redefinition of a contested topic. Other times, the purpose of a piece of writing is to encourage more complex critical thinking on a subject, with the hope that more open dialogue will ensue between readers.
Let’s imagine that a writer has set out to write about climate change. That writer might simply aim to make people believe that climate change is real, depending on their target audience. Alternatively, in writing to a different audience, the writer might try to convince readers to make drastic changes in their lives to combat climate change. In yet another writing situation, the writer might protest the actions of a particular company that contribute to climate change. The writer’s unique purpose will shape the ideas they express, and their purpose will shape the emotional appeals they make as well.
Identifying your purpose will help you to decide how to develop your argument. Whether your purpose is to define, to judge, to identify causes and effects, or to compel action, you will need to build your writing around a key building block of argument: claims.
In argumentative writing, your claims are the backbone of your work. Your claims are your arguments. They are the main ideas that structure your writing. Your thesis statement is a type of claim. Your body paragraphs are organized around claims. Your claims will often be explicitly stated, as in the case of your thesis, which is perhaps the most important sentence in your argumentative essay. Similarly, you might imagine your paragraphs as being structured around mini-thesis statements, or supporting claims. Being able to articulate your claims clearly – both your thesis and your supporting claims – is an essential step in creating a strong, well-organized essay.
The claims that we use depend on the purpose that we have in writing. We can ask ourselves which of the following best describes our main goal:
We want to describe the nature of something.
We want to assess how good or bad something is.
We want to demonstrate that one thing causes or caused another.
We want to propose some action.
A writer may want to achieve multiple goals in a single paper. Perhaps our writer working on the topic of climate change wants to identify the effects of a company’s specific actions and call for specific changes. Still, if we can decide which goal is ultimately the most important, we can shape the introduction and conclusion with that goal in mind. Each type of argument has particular questions that may be worth addressing.
The four types of arguments below match the four purposes mentioned above:
Definition arguments describe the nature of something or identify a pattern or trend. Generally speaking, they answer the question, “What is it?”
Evaluation arguments assess something according to particular criteria. They answer the question, “How good or bad is it?”
Causal arguments attempt to show that one thing leads to or has led to another. They answer the question, “What caused it?”
Proposal arguments present a case for action. They answer the question, “What should we do about it?”
Let’s look at some examples of arguments divided into these categories. Note that the examples below aren’t true claims – at least, not yet. The following ideas describe the purpose that the writer has in coming to the argument. The claims themselves haven’t yet been written. Writing them will be the next step.
We want to define a contested term, such as terrorism or cancel culture.
We want to clarify which groups of people the term “Latinx” refers to.
We want to show how Kurdish communities differ in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.
We want to recommend a gaming device.
We want to convince readers that the Supreme Court decision to give corporations First Amendment rights to free speech was misguided.
We want to show that a new Alzheimer’s drug meets the criteria for emergency use authorization.
We want to argue that the attack on the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021 actually made Americans value American democracy more and want to protect it.
We want to analyze why a team continues its losing or winning streak.
We want to suggest that the Covid-19 pandemic led to an increase in internet addiction.
We want readers to take the online Harvard Implicit Association Tests and reflect on what the results suggest about their unconscious biases.
We want legislators to double the gas tax in order to speed up the transition to clean energy.
We want to make community college free for all Americans.
For each claim below, select the category that best describes its purpose. Explain how the claim fits the category.
Minecraft play offers many opportunities for creativity and learning.
The explosion of mental health content on TikTok has reduced the shame many people feel about their mental health issues.
Only apartments where the rent is less than 30% of a minimum wage worker’s income can truly be considered “affordable housing.”
Composting food waste can generate energy with a minimum of greenhouse gas emissions.