In the following brief discussion about developing an argument, remember that the word, "argument," may be used in a different way than you might use it in daily conversation. Casually, you may use the word to mean a fight or disagreement. You may not see your thesis as a statement of disagreement or as an impetus for a fight. Nevertheless, in your paper you will present a topic and direction or claim; you also will devise a means to demonstrate to your reader that your thesis is viable. The means you devise is an argument.

[Some of the examples used in the following explanation are hypothetical and not necessarily drawn from actual research.]

What is an argument?

An argument consists minimally of a premise and a claim. These two are related to one another such that the premise provides support for the claim. The claim is a statement of the arguer's position on a topic or an issue. The premise is the support for the claim and might appear as examples, evidence, testimony, and the like. After a claim has been firmly established, it can then be used as a premise to develop a further claim.

A claim may express facts, relationships, or values. The claim of fact that "men more than women tend to interrupt conversational partners" expresses an arguer's belief that this statement is factual. Claims of fact frequently are supported by premises that involve observation or empirical verification. The statement, "Clinton and Nixon employed similar strategies during the impeachment processes," expresses a relationship of similarity between the strategies of these two presidents. Claims of relationships may be supported by premises that identify and explain a number of similar features shared by the people, ideas, or objects linked in the relationship. Similarly, the claim, "Verbal aggression leads to a loss of self-esteem," expresses a relationship of contingency or causation between verbal aggression and self-esteem. If you use a claim of contingency or causation in your argument, you will need to provide premises that support the specific kind of contingency you stated in your claim (for example, association, correlation, or causation). Last, the claim that "coworkers devalue women who use tag questions" expresses an evaluation (value) of the women who use this particular speech form. This kind of claim requires two different kinds of premises. One kind will establish that tag questions are the cause of some response in coworkers. The other kind of premise will establish the coworkers' values--in this case negative--of those who use tag questions.

Premises are statements designed to support claims. Premises frequently used by writers include reports of events, either current or historical; results of scholarly research; and opinions of subject-matter experts. Ordinarily a claim will require more than one premise for its support, but some claims can be supported by a single premise.

Principles for developing cogent arguments.

  1. Your claim should state but not overstate your position. Your claim should communicate your position on an issue as precisely as possible. Suppose your claim states the following: "The elaborate nonverbal codes developed by some high-context cultures may provide means for more complex relational information exchange than can occur in many low-context cultures." Do not overstate your position by claiming that "High-context cultures generate more complex relational information than low-context cultures."

  2. Your premises must be acceptable to your audience. In some cases, premises are acceptable to an audience, but in most instances, premises are constructed around evidence of one kind or another. For instance, premises to support the claim that Clinton and Nixon employed similar rhetorical strategies might consist of quotations from speeches by both men. The writer could reasonably assume that citing passages from the presidents' speeches would be more acceptable to an audience than, for example, citing hearsay from a talk show. In another example, support for the claim that verbal aggression damages people's self-esteem might be drawn from empirical research studies.

  3. Make clear to your audience the relevance of your premise(s) to your claim(s). If the connections between your premises and claims are not obvious, make them explicit. Although you may understand how Dominic Infante's findings regarding verbal aggression relate to your particular points about self-esteem, your audience may not. Take time to make the lines of connection explicit.

  4. Your premises must be sufficient to support your claim. Providing sufficient support for your claim entails providing enough evidence to support each of the component parts of your claim. Suppose you wanted to support the claim that people in warm-climate cultures are better able to encode emotion than people in cold-climate cultures. If you used nonverbal research demonstrating that women in warm-climate cultures encoded happiness more effectively than women in cold-climate cultures, your premise would be insufficient because the research you cited applied only to women and only to happiness.