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Structure of an argument

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There are various ways to explain the structure of an argument. In the world of international debate, a standard model stems from the foundational textbook, Discovering the World through Debate.


Argument in Life versus Argument in Debate

The everyday sense of argument often differs from the concept of argument in more formal circumstances, such as when one participates in a debate or writes an essay. Often people get into disagreements; that is, people argue with one another over an issue, however serious or not so serious. For instance, an individual may argue with another person over a complex political issue, someone may debate his or her enjoyment of a film with friends, or a couple may argue over who must do the dishes. This everyday sense of have an arguement and arguing often differs from a proper argument, because everyday arguments are typically disagreements, differences of opinion, or, even rants and emotional outbursts, as opposed to well researched and structured arguments with clear guiding conclusions and premises, or opinions that are backed up by quality evidence. Just as there is a difference between types of argument, there is an important difference between the following concepts: being critical versus critical thinking.

In Logical Self-Defense, Ralph H. Johnson and J. Anthony Blair distinguish between more informal, everday disagreements and more formal, structured arguments in the following manner. The first understanding of argument is "An interaction, usually verbal and usually between two or more people, that is normally occasioned by a difference of opinion" (7). The second understanding of argument is "What someone makes or formulates (reasons or evidence) as grounds or support for an opinion (the basis for believing it).

So, we have at least two major senses of the term argument. One way to help you remember, is to think of argument as a general concept and argument as a specific concept. For instance, one type of argument can be described as argument (with a lower case "a") to describe any sort of disagreement or verbal fight, where often one seeks to defeat another, but also includes formal argumentation. The other sense of the term can be understood as Argument (with an upper case "A") or as argument proper, which specifically consists of a claim and its supporting reasons, evidence, or data. Although argument is clearly distinguised into two types here, in life, all types of argument are often written with a lower case "a," which often leads to some confusion between everyday argumentation and debate argumentation.


Other Terms

In debate competitions and in academic essay writing, one needs to demonstrate his or her skill with the second, more specific understanding of delivering a quality argument. Nevertheless, even in different academic contexts, the concept of an argument may use different terms, but the idea behind quality argumentation and reasoning is similar.

For instance, in Essay Writing for Canadian Students, Kay L. Stewart et al. explain how the core of an essay's "argument" exists in the essay's "thesis": the "combination of an opinion and the reason(s) supporting it is called a thesis" (6). Thus, a "thesis" consists of at least two distinguishable parts: an opinion and the reason or reasons supporting that opinion. In other words, rather than simply being a verbal fight or an expression of opinion, an academic essay includes a link between opinion and supporting evidence that involves reasoning. Hence, a thesis statement in an essay is the paper's core argument. Whether writing a paper, delivering a presentation, or engaging in a debate, you need to have a central thesis or, in the formal sense of the term, an argument.

Because people often confuse an everyday argument as disagreement or verbal fighting with the specific sense of argument in debate, another way to remember the difference between the general and specific use of the term "argument" is to think of academic essay writing.

That is, an argument = a thesis. In debate, argument means an opinion with at least one reason (that differs from the opinion) that supports your opinion.

In Logical Self-Defense, Johnson and Blair identifies an argument in the following manner: the "reasons someone has collected which that person think show that another claim is true, or at least deserves consideration" (8). Johnson and Blair continue: a constructed argument "is a piece of linguistic communication (whether written or spoken) with a certain structure (support and claim) and function (rational support or grounding)" (9).

In the world of logic, an argument may be said to consist of a conclusion and its premises. Similar to essay writing, unlike in life, an argument does not mean a fight where one spars with another and wins. Rather, an argument is a technical term, a unit of attempted proof that aims to persuade. You may personally disagree with someone else's viewpoint on a subject, but if that person makes a well constructed and persuasive argument, then you can still respect that person's argument.


Judging Structure

If you are a judge of a debate, you do not decide the result of a debate based upon who which side you personally agree with, but you vote for the team that delivers the most respectful argument. Amongst other qualities, one foundational element a judge looks for is the clear articulation of a link between opinion and reason(s), or, put another way, between claim (or conclusion) and premise(s).


Toulmin's Influence

Just as the Toulmin model has influenced a wide variety of fields, Toulmin's approach has also had a significant impact on debate. Amongst his other works, Stephen E. Toulmin's landmark series of essays in The Uses of Argument influence the way argumentation is explained in Discovering the World through Debate. In particular, Toulmin's discussion of warrants and other concepts in argumentation are borrowed and adapted for the practical purposes of debate by Trapp et al.

Acknowledging the vibrant quality of arguments, Toulmin opens his third chapter "The Layout of Arguments," with the following: "An argument is like an organism. It has both a gross, anatomical structure and a finer, as-it-were physiological one. When set out explicitly in all its detail, it may occupy a number of printed pages or take perhaps a quarter of an hour to deliver; and within this time or space one can distinguish the main phases marking the progress of the argument from the initial statement of an unsettled problem to the final presentation of a conclusion. These main phases will each of them occupy some minutes or paragraphs, and represent the chief anatomical units of the argument — its 'organs', so to speak. But within each paragraph, when one gets down to the level of individual sentences, a finer structure can be recognised, and this is the structure with which logicians have mainly concerned themselves. It is at this physiological level that the idea of logical form has been introduced, and here that the validity of our arguments has ultimately to be established or refuted" (87).

By understanding the basic form an argument, one may apply such a formula to a variety of situations that call for the creation of arguments, whether in debate, speeches, essay writing, or even when you want to discuss issues with friends and family.

Argument Structures

In Discovering the World through Debate, Robert Trapp explains the way his models function: "First, the model describes only those elements of an argument related to reasoning. It does not describe other important elements such as expressions of feelings or emotions unless these are directly related to reasoning. Second, the model describes only the linguistic elements of reasoning. It does not cover significant nonverbal elements of an argument. Third, the model applies only to the simplest arguments" (13). Nevertheless, Trapp's models help illustrate Toulmin is an accessible manner, one that helps debaters understand and thus construct their own arguments or refute the arguments of their opponents.

Using travel as an analogy for Toulmin's parts of an argument, Trapp declares: "Evidence is the argument's starting point. The claim is the arguer's destination. The warrant is the means of travel, and the reservation involves questions or concerns the arguer may have about the arrival at the destination" (14).

In Discovering the World through Debate, Trapp identifies a simple argument structure, convergent argument structure, and Independent Argument Structure in detail.


"Works Cited"

Johnson, Ralph H. and J. Anthony Blair. Logical Self-Defense. Idebate Press Edition. New York: Idebate Press, 2006.

Stewart, Kay L. et al. Essay Writing for Canadian Students with Readings. Third Edition. Scarborough: Prentice-Hall, 1994.

Toulmin, Stephen E. The Uses of Argument. Updated Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Trapp, Robert, et al. Discovering the World through Debate: A Practical Guide to Educational Debate for Debaters, Coaches, and Judges. Third Edition. New York: IDEA Press Books, 2005.

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