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Critical writing: Individual arguments

“Once you can argue well, particularly in writing, you have mastered the core attribute for university eduction”

Debra Hills, Student Essentials: Critical Thinking

Understanding the structure of an individual argument is essential for both academic writing and reading. Here we look at this in relation to building your own arguments, particularly in relation to paragraph structure. 


Elements of an argument

A piece of academic writing has an overall argument which is made up of a series of linked individual, smaller arguments. When you write, you need to make claims that are supported with evidence/reasons (premises) and crucially, you need to try to persuade your reader that these claims are correct or significant in some way.

An academic argument is therefore made up of three components:

Claim + Premise + Attempt to persuade = Argument

Each component is looked at in more detail below:

Claim

The claim is the point that you are trying to make in your paragraph. You are asserting something that you are then going to try and back up in the rest of the paragraph.

If you fail to include clear and relatively concise claims, your writing becomes harder to follow. Even if some of your evidence is complicated, clear claims mean your reader already knows what you are trying to argue and this helps them make sense of your writing later in the paragraph.

Premise

Premises are the reasons and evidence you are using to justify a claim. A premise is something that you believe to be true - either because it is uncontested knowledge or because it is contested yet persuasive knowledge. This is important because at university you are often referring to quite new articles that are pushing the boundaries of knowledge and a lot of that is still contested.

It is common to use several premises to back up a single claim. They do not all have to agree with each other, some can be counterarguments that you are discrediting.

Example 1 (uncontested):

When knowledge is uncontested, the claim you make can be more definite. Take the following premise:

Down's syndrome is caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21 which occurs when the chromosome fails to separate during egg or sperm production.

This is a known fact and can therefore be used to support a claim as shown:

Down's syndrome is caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21 which occurs when the chromosome fails to separate during egg or sperm production. Actions during pregnancy cannot have contributed to incidences of the syndrome.

Example 2 (contested knowledge)

The following premise involves contested knowledge and therefore uses less definite language:

Some sex-linked genes have been associated with aggressive behaviour.

It is the phrase 'have been associated with' rather than 'cause' which acknowledges that this is potentially contested.

This premise can still be used to support a claim, but the claim must include an element of caution:

Some sex-linked genes have been associated with aggressive behaviour. A proportion of men could be imprisoned as a result of their biology.

The caution is added by using the phrase 'could be' rather than 'are'.

When a premise is contested knowledge, it can be useful to use more than one premise. Here, the claim is further bolstered by a second premise about the gender discrepancy for violent crime in prisons:

Some sex-linked genes have been associated with aggressive behaviour and there is a higher proportion of men in prison for violent crimes than women. A proportion of men could be imprisoned as a result of their biology.

Premises are the parts of the argument that need backing up with references to appropriate sources. These are not included in this example but each premise would need a citation attached to it

Attempt to persuade

Without attempting to persuade the reader of something, you are not completing an argument. The simplest way you can do this is to show exactly why the premise leads to the claim:

Down's syndrome is caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21 which occurs when the chromosome fails to separate during egg or sperm production. As this has happened before pregnancy occurs, it is impossible that actions during pregnancy can have contributed to incidences of the syndrome.

For a really strong argument, you must also answer the 'so what' question. You must explain why the claim is significant in furthering your overall argument:

Some sex-linked genes have been associated with aggressive behaviour which could explain why more men are imprisoned for violent crimes than women. A proportion of men could, therefore, be imprisoned as a result of this aspect of their biology. Coupled with the high incidence of ADHD in prison inmates discussed earlier, this raises serious questions about the suitability of prison, rather than psychiatric care, for a significant portion of the current prison population.

How does this fit in with PEEL paragraph structure?

PEEL acronym - Point, evidence, explanation, linkWhen looking at main body paragraphs in our Essay Writing SkillsGuide, we considered PEEL paragraph structure:

  • A topic sentence – what is the overall point that the paragraph is making?
  • Evidence that supports your point – this is usually your cited material.
  • Explanation of why the point is important and how it helps with your overall argument.
  • A link (if necessary) to the next paragraph (or to the previous one if coming at the beginning of the paragraph) or back to the essay question.

You should be able to see clear parallels with the structure of an argument given above:

  • Topic sentence (point) = Claim
  • Evidence that supports your point = Premises
  • Explanation = Attempt to persuade
  • Link = This can also be part of the attempt to persuade (especially if linking back to the question), alternatively it can be completely separate and just used to add flow to the overall argument.