Questions are at the core of arguments. What matters is not just that you believe that what you have to say is true, but that you give others viable reasons to believe it as well—and also show them that you have considered the issue from multiple angles. To do that, build your argument out of the answers to the five questions a rational reader will expect answers to. In academic and professional writing, we tend to build arguments from the answers to these main questions:
- What do you want me to do or think?
- Why should I do or think that?
- How do I know that what you say is true?
- Why should I accept the reasons that support your claim?
- What about this other idea, fact, or consideration?
- How should you present your argument?
When you ask people to do or think something they otherwise would not, they quite naturally want to know why they should do so. In fact, people tend to ask the same questions. As you make a reasonable argument, you anticipate and respond to readers’ questions with a particular part of argument:
1. The answer to What do you want me to do or think? is your conclusion: “I conclude that you should do or think X.”
2. The answer to Why should I do or think that? states your premise: “You should do or think X because . . .”
3. The answer to How do I know that what you say is true? presents your support: “You can believe my reasons because they are supported by these facts . . .”
4. The answer to Why should I accept that your reasons support your claim? states your general principle of reasoning, called a warrant: “My specific reason supports my specific claim because whenever this general condition is true, we can generally draw a conclusion like mine.”
5. The answer to What about this other idea, fact, or conclusion?acknowledges that your readers might see things differently and then responds to their counterarguments.
6. The answer to How should you present your argument? leads to the point of view, organization, and tone that you should use when making your arguments.
As you have noticed, the answers to these questions involve knowing the particular vocabulary about argument because these terms refer to specific parts of an argument. The remainder of this section will cover the terms referred to in the questions listed above as well as others that will help you better understand the building blocks of argument.
What Is a Conclusion, and What Is a Premise?
The root notion of an argument is that it convinces us that something is true. What we are being convinced of is the conclusion. An example would be this claim:
Littering is harmful.
A reason for this conclusion is called the premise. Typically, a conclusion will be supported by two or more premises. Both premises and conclusions are statements. Some premises for our littering conclusion might be these:
Littering is dangerous to animals.
Littering is dangerous to humans.
Thus, to be clear, understand that an argument asserts that the writer’s claim is true in two main parts: the premises of the argument exist to show that the conclusion is true.
Be aware of the other words to indicate a conclusion–claim, assertion, point–and other ways to talk about the premise–reason, factor, the why. Also, do not confuse this use of the word conclusion with a conclusion paragraph for an essay.
What Is a Statement?
A statement is a type of sentence that can be true or false and corresponds to the grammatical category of a declarative sentence. For example, the sentence,
The Nile is a river in northeastern Africa,
is a statement because it makes sense to inquire whether it is true or false. (In this case, it happens to be true.) However, a sentence is still a statement, even if it is false. For example, the sentence,
The Yangtze is a river in Japan,
is still a statement; it is just a false statement (the Yangtze River is in China). In contrast, none of the following sentences are statements:
Please help yourself to more casserole.
Don’t tell your mother about the surprise.
Do you like Vietnamese pho?
None of these sentences are statements because it does not make sense to ask whether those sentences are true or false; rather, they are a request, a command, and a question, respectively. Make sure to remember the difference between sentences that are declarative statements and sentences that are not because arguments depend on declarative statements.
A question cannot be an argument, yet students will often pose a question at the end of an introduction to an essay, thinking they have declared their thesis. They have not. If, however, they answer that question (conclusion) and give some reasons for that answer (premises), they then have the components necessary for both an argument and a declarative statement of that argument (thesis).
To reiterate: All arguments are composed of premises and conclusions, both of which are types of statements. The premises of the argument provide reasons for thinking that the conclusion is true. Arguments typically involve more than one premise.