62 What is Argument?

Dr. Karen Palmer

Usually when we think of argument, we think of fighting–two people having a disagreement, which can often get heated. This is a typical Western view of argument. However, as we all know, these kinds of argument are not usually effective. In fact, they usually end with hurt feelings and no resolution because the aim of both parties is just to get their own way—to win the fight. These types of arguments don’t lead us to consider other points of view, look critically at our own thinking, or learn anything new.


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What is Argument?

In academic writing, especially at the college level, students are expected to not only understand ideas, but to create their own arguments. In academic terms, an argument is simply an assertion of your point of view. Speeches, parades, art, the choices you make in the voting booth, even where you spend your money are all examples of these types of arguments.

Academic argument is different from our typical conception of arguments in several ways. First, its purpose is not to win, but to offer others the opportunity to consider our point of view. Academic arguments give reasons, support positions, and show respect for the audience. Obviously, these types of arguments require more thought!

Normally positions are stated about controversial issues, issues about which people have strong feelings and sometimes disagree vehemently: practice, the best way to achieve goals, fundamental values and beliefs. A controversy is not simply a scandalous topic or one in which there are clearly defined ‘sides.’ A controversial topic is one in which there is no obvious right answer, no truth that everyone accepts, no single authority whom everyone trusts. Finding the facts will not settle these disputes because, ultimately, they are matters of opinion and judgment.

While your goal is not to “win” an argument, it is possible to convince others to consider a particular position seriously or to accept or reject a position by giving readers strong reasons and solid support while anticipating opposing arguments.

Important tips to remember for the future:

1. If you do have a controversial topic (now or in the future), instead of searching for sources that support your point of view, try finding the most credible sources you can to prove you’re wrong. Read those sources with an open mind–with the goal to LEARN from someone else, not simply to refute their arguments. This practice will challenge you to better articulate your own position, help you better understand other perspectives, and, ultimately, make your argument stronger. Remember, there are many people who are more educated and more researched than you who disagree with you and have good reasons for doing so. Perhaps there is something important for you to consider in their position.

2. Pay attention to the language used in your sources and in your own paper. If you find that the argument is based only on emotion, on hearsay, or resorts to name calling (ie “Those who don’t agree with this position are… ignorant or uneducated or biased or right-wing or left-wing, etc), chances are the argument is not valid at all. The strongest arguments are based on verifiable facts. Make sure both your supporting sources AND your own argument are supported with strong factual evidence, rather than name-calling or generalizations.


Content created by Dr. Karen Palmer. Last edited 5/30/2020.. Licensed under CC BY NC.


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