Define your argument


For many college papers, especially in the humanities, the most important part of the assignment is your argument. Here, we will walk you through some key terms to help you construct and define your argument.

Species of Argument

Aristotle delineated three different species (or purposes) of argument that are still relevant today: judicial arguments, demonstrative arguments, and deliberative arguments. Judicial arguments are concerned with the past and with just or unjust actions – statements in a court of law are examples of judicial arguments. Demonstrative arguments are concerned with the present and with honor and dishonor – a eulogy at a funeral is an example of a demonstrative argument. Deliberative arguments are concerned with the future, and with the potential consequences of actions in the present – many political speeches are examples of demonstrative arguments (On Rhetoric 47-49).

Types of Proof

Aristotle also delineated three modes of proof: ethos, pathos, and logos. According to Aristotle: “for some [proofs] are in the character [ethos] of the speaker, and some in disposing the listener in some way [pathos], and some in the argument itself [logos]” (On Rhetoric 37). Ethos is concerned with the speaker or writer’s credibility or character; pathos is concerned with values and emotion and how they resonate with the audience; and logos is concerned with a sense of logic within the argument itself. All speakers and writers wishing to persuade their audience need to build credibility, arouse emotion, and use logic.

Types of Claim

The claim is the position being taken in the argument – the thesis. Three types of claims are as follows: fact, value, and policy. Claims of fact attempt to establish that something is or is not the case. Claims of value attempt to establish the overall worth, merit, or importance of something. Claims of policy attempt to establish, reinforce, or change a course of action. The position being takin in an argument should be demonstrated with evidence. A speaker or writer needs to use a specific claim and stay consistent with the use of that claim throughout their argument.

Audience Analysis

Analyzing and understanding a specific audience involves demographic analysis, psychological profiling, and environmental scanning. Demographic analysis includes considering the age, gender, ethnic, socio-economic, and racial background of the audience. Psychological profiling involves considering attitudes, values, and belief systems. Environmental scanning involves considering the size of the room (if speaking) or the visual layout of the media (if writing). The speaker or writer needs to understand the audience to appeal to their needs and desires and avoid offending them.

Patterns of Reasoning

A speaker or writer can structure their message multiple ways – three common ways are deductively, inductively, and analogically. In a deductive structure the claim is presented at the beginning of the argument, with the remaining information in the form of support strategies and materials bearing out that claim. In an inductive structure, the claim is presented at the end of the argument with examples and other reasoning strategies from particular cases leading up to that claim. In an analogical structure, the claim is usually presented near the end of the argument, and the information takes the form of a comparison between two cases. Generally, a deductive structure is most effective when the audience is inclined to agree with the writer’s claim, and an inductive structure is most effective when the audience is likely to disagree.

Methods of Organization

The structure and form of information has as much to do with persuasion as the information itself. Six common methods of organization for persuasive writing and speaking are as follows: basic argument, comparative advantages, invitational, motivated sequence, problem-solution, and refutation (Sellnow 358-375). A speaker or writer needs to use the method or organization that fits best with their claim, the disposition of their audience, and the pattern of their argument.

The most common method – basic argument – looks something like this:

I. Introduction and Thesis
    A. Support Strategy
    B. Support Strategy

II. Good reason #1
    A. Support Strategy
    B. Support Strategy

III. Good reason #2
    A. Support Strategy
    B. Support Strategy

IV. Good reason #3
    A. Support Strategy
    B. Support Strategy

V. Conclusion

Note, though, that this is not the only or the most persuasive form that your argument can take.

Types of Support Strategies

Arguments are more interesting and more persuasive when a variety of support strategies are used. The most basic arguments consist of description and explanation. More sophisticated speakers and writes look for more ways to use a comprehensive repertoire of support strategies. The speaker or writer needs to implement a variety of support strategies to demonstrate their claim. Here is a list of common support strategies from Sellnow’s Confident Public Speaking (154-167):

  1. Facts: accurate, established information
  2. Statistics: numerical data, collected and arranged
  3. Definitions: statements that clarify meaning
  4. Descriptions: creates a picture in the reader’s mind
  5. Explanations: demonstrates how and why
  6. Examples: specific cases that illustrate a point, can be brief or extended
  7. Hypothetical examples: imaginary cases that illustrate a point
  8. Narratives: stories that illustrate a point
  9. Personal narratives: individual narratives that illustrate a point
  10. Testimonies: communication from another person that supports a point
  11. Expert testimonies: communication from a professional that supports a point
  12. Drawing on personal experiences: supporting a point with your own experience
  13. Research interviews: communication with an expert to gather information
  14. Surveys: information from tools designed to gather information

Of course, the sources from which you draw these support strategies will vary as well. Some common types of sources include:

  1. Library resources: academic sources used to support your point
  2. Books: sources that cover topics in-depth
  3. Reference works: sources used to cover topics periodically such as encyclopedias
  4. Magazines and newspapers: sources that cover current information
  5. Government documents: sources published by the federal, state, or local government
  6. Journal articles: sources published by professional researchers, educators, and scholars
  7. Internet documents: sources from the internet that do not fall into any of the above categories


Fallacies are the result of flaws in the logic of an argument. These flaws could be related to reasoning, evidence, emotions, or other dynamics. Fallacies can be found in nearly every argument at some level, and they can also be remarkably rhetorically effective. However, a reliance or overuse of logical fallacies will damage your credibility and make readers less likely to accept your argument. Seven common fallacies are: ad hominem attacks (attacking the character of your opponent rather than responding to their argument), appeals to pity (using strong emotional language to make up for a lack of factual support), appeals to popular beliefs (assuming that because most people agree on something then it must be true), appeals to tradition (assuming that the only correct way to do something is the way it has always been done), faulty analogy (comparing two things that are not actually comparable), faulty use of authority (appealing to authorities whose expertise is unrelated to the subject matter at hand), and trivial objections (nitpicking unimportant parts of an opponent’s argument rather than engaging the ideas themselves).


Arguments are forever present. Understanding the terminology of argument is like understanding the formulas for an algebra test, the playbook for a football team, or the lines for a play: the person who understands the terminology will be a more effective speaker or writer than the person who does not. The terminology of argument provides a bag of tools for those who use words in productive ways and a shield of protection against those who manipulate them.


Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Trans. George A. Kennedy. New York: Oxford Press, 1991.
Borchers, Timothy A. Rhetorical Theory: An Introduction. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006.
Huglen, Mark E., and Norman E. Clark. Argument Strategies from Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004.
Sellnow, Deanna. Confident Public Speaking. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2005.

By Mark E. Huglen, PhD.
Last edited October 2016 by Allison Haas