What is an argument?

What is an argument?

According to Chatfield (2018, p. 23), an argument is “an attempt to persuade someone through reasoning that they should agree with a particular conclusion”. Reasoning and conclusions are characteristics of an argument and can be identified by certain words or phrases. Look for these in your reading to identify a writer’s argument or use them in your assignments to make your argument clear to your reader.

Phrases that indicate a line of reasoning

Phrases that indicate a conclusion

Given that

Based upon






In conclusion


As for

And so

Which shows that


Further reading: The University of Manchester. (2019). Being critical. Retrieved from

Types of Argument

Contributing argument

Contributing arguments are individual reasons provided to justify the main argument.

Main argument

A main argument or an overall argument represents the position of the author and is comprised of contributing arguments or a line of reasoning.

For example:

Main Argument

Contributing Arguments

Dog ownership is beneficial to mental and physical health.

Dogs encourage sensory stress relief through touch

Dogs produce Oxytocin when around their owners

Dogs are good companions and combat loneliness

Dogs provide structure and routine to your day

Ambiguous arguments

This refers to arguments that are unclear. These are easily questioned in speech, as we can ask the speaker what they mean or to elaborate, but we are unable to do this when reading an argument. The argument might be complex and require close reading or might take time to uncover what is being argued. With these arguments, critical thinking skills are key, as you have to decipher what is intended and make a judgment, without being able to ask the author what was intended (Cottrell, 2013).


According to Chatfield (2018, p. 28) a non-argument is “any element of a piece of writing that does not attempt to persuade you of a conclusion through reasoning, and thus doesn’t qualify as part of an argument.” Non-arguments are still used in academic writing in order to contextualise evidence or arguments. These include:


Information without evaluation, persuasion or critical commentary

The dogs in the study were predominantly smaller, muscular breeds such as Staffordshire Bull Terriers, French Bulldogs, Boston Terriers and Pugs.


An outline of key information in a piece of work or writing

The study took place in the South West of England with 20 dog owners and 20 non-dog owners from different ages. The main objective was to observe whether physical activity was more prevalent amongst dog owners than non-dog owners.


A point of view without reasoning based on a personal judgment of facts. This includes advice or warnings, which are opinions on how one should act.

Dog ownership is a huge responsibility, so you need to be prepared before taking one on.


A conviction based on morality, faith or culture

Dogs shouldn’t be left outside overnight as this is inhumane and cruel.


An explanation of the meaning intended behind a thought, idea or phrase

This study considers dog ownership to mean anyone who has a pet dog on a permanent or semi-permanent basis.


A specific example provided to demonstrate a general point

Some breeds are thought to be more sociable than others for instance Labradors, Retrievers and Spaniels.

Further reading: The Royal Literary Fund. (2019). Different types of argument. Retrieved from

Explanations vs arguments

The difference between explanations and arguments isn’t always obvious; but it is an important distinction to make! An argument attempts to persuade through a line of reasoning, whereas an explanation assumes the truth and provides a reason, without any persuasion. An explanation assumes something, then asks why something is the way it is. Consider this explanation:

An explanation reasons backwards from something that is assumed to be true (Chatfield, 2018, p. 34). However, explanations and arguments use similar wording: so, what sets them apart? Consider this argument:

This example provides reasons for an opinion: it doesn’t assume that the reader will accept the first statement as fact and therefore attempts to persuade by providing some reasons for the opinion to be agreed with. The difference is subtle but can be used to integrate more critique into your descriptions!


An assumption is anything that is taken for granted in an argument, as they aren’t stated explicitly, but underpin the argument being made for the conclusion to be made (Cottrell, 2013). This is technique used by authors that requests the reader to accept something as fact rather than proving or explaining it, to build an argument around more salient information. This is often since authors have time constraints and word count limits that restrict them from providing detailed explanations, so a decision is made to assume that the audience understands. In your discipline, it is perfectly legitimate to make an assumption that your reader will have some basic background knowledge on the subject, so not every concept needs to be explained. However, you should aim to strike a balance in your writing between assumption and explanation to make your assignments accessible and understood. In the wider context of academic writing, research should transcend international barriers and disciplines, and this is achieved by being mindful of the balance between assumption and explanation. This is a good habit to get into, as your undergraduate dissertation will rely heavily on this distinction when you are writing about a focused topic.

Developing Arguments

Arguments can be constructed in various ways. The following advice looks at how you can develop a basic argument into a complex argument, with your own voice and insight. Austin (2019) states:

You can have a point of view, a position, an argument without feeling that you would sell your soul to defend it. In fact, in an assignment you might play around with a position, and argument, while still leaving room to allow for other points of view. … Really good assignments find an unusual or original position from which to argue something – drawing on evidence to present a different way of looking at something. (p.47)

According to Booth, Columb and Williams (2003, p. 115) every argument is a lot like a conversation and is always composed of the same five elements:

  1. What do you claim?
  2. What reasons support this claim?
  3. What evidence supports those reasons?
  4. Do you acknowledge this alternative/ complication/ objection, and how do you respond?
  5. What warrant justifies the connection of your reasons to your claim?


A claim (also known as a premise in critical thinking literature) is a debatable statement based on the interpretation of evidence on what is best, good or appropriate: not a mere statement of fact. The following advice demonstrates how claims can be formed or manipulated for use in your argument.


Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Turn facts into claims

Terminator 2: Judgment Day is arguably the best film in the series.

Acknowledge limiting conditions

Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the best film in the Terminator franchise; although, newer instalments have yet to be appraised.

Use hedges to limit certainty

For many, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is arguably the best film in the Terminator franchise; although, newer instalments have yet to be appraised.

Claims can be explicit or implicit depending on the conclusion. (See ‘Reasoning & logic’ for more on this). Claims need to be made clearly in your writing, so your reader knows exactly what you are referring to and so your reasons can be linked unambiguously.


Reasons are the statements we provide to a reader in our writing in order for them to accept our claims (Booth, Columb & Williams, 2003). The diagram below demonstrates that reasons can be divided into subreasons, as a reason may require elaboration before the support for the argument is made clear. Reasons are often expressed by the word because, for instance:

Students are spending more time studying in the Library during Freshers’ Week than in the Student Union bar because they are driven by a wish to succeed in gaining employment after University.

You can use the diagram below to see how an argument is broken down into parts and use it as a template for building your own arguments.

In a conversation, a claim followed by a reason is enough; but in academic writing, we can’t provide reasons without evidence from the literature. The Royal Literary Fund (2019) explores this difference in more depth here. Be careful, as there is a slippery distinction between reasons and evidence.  Reasons state why you believe your reader should accept your claim and can be created; whereas evidence is empirical and objective and can’t be invented.


Unlike a conversation, a written argument cannot rely on visual cues or pragmatics to infer meaning. Therefore, reasons must be supported by carefully selected evidence in order to add credibility to your argument. Reasons can also be used to explain evidence, so you can use these interchangeably when crafting your argument (see the diagram below for an overview).

Remember, it is highly unlikely that evidence will prove or disprove your claims, but you can state a level of caution or likelihood through the use of hedged language.

Sometimes, you can have so much evidence to support your reasons, that you might not know what to include and what to omit, in order to meet the word count. Here are some questions to guide your decision on what to include:

  • Is the source a leading authority on the issue?
  • Has this source changed thinking about the subject?
  • Has this source challenge what has been said or provide a different way of considering the issue?

(Cottrell, 2013)

If you have answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, then the evidence is contender for inclusion in your essay. However, try not to place to much emphasis on describing the research; instead, paraphrase or summarise the key points you need to critically evaluate the research and explain how it supports your claim.

Further reading: Chapter 8 Where’s the proof? In Cottrell, S. (2013). Critical thinking skills: Effective analysis, argument and reflection. (3rd ed.). London, UK: Palgrave.


Reasoning & Logic

The standard form

The standard form is a universal method for laying out the premises and conclusions of an argument by critical thinkers and philosophers. A premise is another word for a claim; and arguments may contain more than one premise; but there can only be one conclusion per argument. Here is an example of an argument put into standard form:

The shop has run out of bread: this means you won’t be able to have a sandwich for lunch.

Premise 1: The shop has run out of bread.

Conclusion: You cannot have a sandwich for lunch.

Explicit and implicit claims

An argument can have explicit and implicit claims (see assumptions). The standard form can help you identify the obvious claims from the not so obvious.

For example:

The new teacher at my daughter’s school is a smoker. They never should have hired him.

Premise 1: The new teacher at my daughter’s school is a smoker.

Premise 2: [Implicit] People who smoke are unfit to be teachers.

Conclusion: This person should not have been hired as a teacher.

The above example refers to the standard form which is used in critical thinking and logic studies. It can be useful to deconstruct and reconstruct arguments using the standard form for a number of reasons:

  • To make sure that you are certain about the nature of an argument
  • It can reveal flaws in reasoning that might have remained undiscovered
  • It allows us to examine all explicit and implicit premises that might not have been discovered
  • It allows you to refine your critical technique in producing convincing, well-reasoned arguments

(Chatfield, 2018, p. 46)

Models of Argumentation

The Classical Model – For strong arguments! 

This model dates back to Ancient Greece and was used by philosophers such as Aristotle. It assumes you have an open-minded audience and also relies on the person making the argument believing that their argument is plausible and logical. This model relies heavily on rhetorical appeals.

Read more: Purdue University – Classical Arguments

The Rogerian Model – For difficult, contentious issues

The Rogerian Model is excellent for arguments that are particularly divisive or when you have an audience that are not likely to agree with you. This model attempts to find a compromise or a ‘middle ground’ between both sides of the argument, by presenting sympathy for the opposition, before proposing your own argument. Excellent for management! 

Read more: Excelsior Writing Lab – Rogerian Infographic 

Toulmin’s Model – For Academic Arguments

Toulmin’s model was developed with reading and assessing academic arguments in mind. It is not concerned with ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ an argument, but rather analysing strengths and weaknesses, with an ultimate goal of proposing realistic solutions. It is very rare that an argument is absolute and in the world of academia, the majority of arguments are open to interpretation and further challenges. Toulmin’s model acknowledges through the use of ‘qualifiers’ which are words that limit a level of certainty around a claim. Additionally, this model also includes ‘rebuttals’, to demonstrate the need for balance and inclusion of the opposition. This allows the reader to consider the extent to which the argument is applicable. 

Read more: University of Toronto – Toulmin Model of Argumentation

Walton’s Model – For Conversational Arguments

Also known as the Dialectical Model of Evaluating Argument, this model considers whether an argument is used reasonably or not within a conversational context. This means looking at the type of discourse that the argument occurs in. Walton stipulates 7 types of context: persuasion, quarrel, inquiry, negotiation of interests, information seeking, deliberation and mixed. The process dedicates the final step to the analysis of logical fallacies, poor reasoning and relevance. 

Read more: University of Toronto – The Dialectical Model of Evaluating Argument 

Useful Sources for Arguments