understanding arguments

As a large proportion of the grade for a composition essay is often for content or argument or logic or persuasiveness, it is important to know what an argument is, how to make one, and how to analyse one. Understanding the language and form of arguments will help you make better ones. An argument can be defined as follows:
An argument is a connected series of sentences, statements, or propositions (called “premises”) that are intended to give reasons of some kind for a sentence, statement, or proposition (called the “conclusion”). (Sinnot-Armstrong 2010, 3)

Things to notice about this definition:

  • the premises are those things which lead to or support the conclusion.
  • the conclusion is that which follows from the premises
  • the premises are intended to (but may not!) give good reasons for the conclusion
  • both premises and conclusions may be propositions (meaning that we may start reasoning from the conclusion of another argument)
When analysing an argument, always study its language carefully to identify any premise indicators and conclusion indicators. Consider the chain of arguments below (premise indicators and conclusion indicators are in blue and red respectively):

Everyone cannot [have absolute power]—and if you have to [have absolute power] in order to be happy, [then] only some men can achieve happiness at the expense of others. Hence, if everyone has a natural right to the pursuit of happiness, and if that means that happiness must be attainable by all, then […] power over other men cannot be a part of human happiness—for if it were, happiness would not be attainable by all.

The premises of an argument may be explicit (written down in the argument) or implicit (deliberately hidden or part of a proposition the writer assumes is already proven). Expressing arguments in standard form makes the explicit and implicit premises and the conclusion easier to see or find. We might express the chain of arguments above as follows (explicit premises in blue, implicit premises in grey, and conclusions in red, ∴ = “therefore”):



1. A person’s natural rights cannot be removed or reduced
2. Everyone has a natural right to pursue happiness
∴ Happiness must be equally attainable by everyone
1. Happiness must be equally attainable by everyone
2. When one person has absolute power, the power of others is reduced
3. Absolute power can only be achieved by one person, not by everyone
∴ Achieving absolute power is not part of happiness


In the analysis of the arguments above, notice that:

  • the first proposition of argument 1 is implicit, but it is necessary to reach the conclusion;
  • the conclusion (proposition) from argument 1 becomes one of the implicit premises in argument 2;
  • by a chain of reasoning, the conclusion of argument 2 is dependent upon premise 1 of argument 1, which was actually implicit/hidden!
  • Around a quarter of your grade for your ENG 101 and 102 essays is awarded for your argument.
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