Essays and Arguments, Section Eight
[This text, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University), is in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, released May 2000]
8.0 Paragraph Structure
Up to this point we have been concentrating on the overall logic of an argument. The emphasis has been on developing a clear logical framework for the argument, in the form of a detailed outline, so that you know from the start the central claim of the essay and the way in which each paragraph will contribute to that argument.
If you can now formulate a clear focus, thesis, and sequence of topic sentences, then your essay will have a firm logical framework. It will be clear what you are trying to achieve and how you are proposing to achieve the argumentative point of the essay or speech. No matter what you write further, if you stick to the outline you have proposed and if it is a good one, the reader will be clear about the purpose and direction of the argument. Now, we must turn to the matter of the specific details of the argument which will turn that framework and intention into a convincing complete argument.
The next two sections focus on the paragraphs which you construct on the basis of the topic sentences you have established for the main body of the argument. That is, they discuss various ways in which the particular details of the argument, which flesh out the outline you have drawn up, can be constructed.
This section deals primarily with those paragraphs which will make up the main body of the argument in a short essay. In a later section we will discuss further some paragraphs that you may need to write as part of the definition of the argument or as ways to supplement the argument in a longer research paper.
8.1 Paragraphs in the Main Body of the Argument
Once you have defined an argument and settled on an outline for the main body, you then need to construct the details of that argument, paragraph by paragraph. If you have thought carefully about the series of topic sentences and have written them down in sequence, then you should know how you intend to proceed. These topic sentences in the outline will form the opening sentences for each paragraph of the argument.
The key principle to bear in mind, as you set out on the argument, is that any single paragraph can deal with only one item: the argumentative point established in the topic sentence. Hence, the major purpose of the paragraph is to provide the argumentative details which will make that topic sentence persuasive to the reader. That means, in effect, that each paragraph forms a sub-argument related to the main thesis; it advances a point in support of that thesis and argues it.
The argument in the paragraph will be either a deductive argument, an inductive argument, or, less commonly, a combination. What that means is that in each paragraph you will either establish a common and agreed upon general principle and apply it to a specific case, to produce a deductive conclusion, or you will provide facts, research data, quotations from the text and produce an inductive conclusion.
Here are two examples of paragraphs taken from the main body of an argument against capital punishment. Each has a clear topic sentence, and each conducts the reader to a conclusion at the end which reinforces and repeats the topic sentence. Notice that the first has a deductive structure (no collected information is introduced; the argument comes entirely from principles), and the second has an inductive structure (note that the statistics and the references in the second are fictional; they are there only as examples of the style).
Sample Paragraph A
The first compelling argument against capital punishment is that it is morally indefensible. If we consider the argument from a Christian standpoint, we have the prohibition on killing in the Ten Commandments. In addition, we learn from the Bible that vengeance belongs to the Lord. However we describe capital punishment, it clearly involves killing another human being and, in many cases, assuming responsibility for avenging the death of someone else. From the point of view of secular human rights, too, there are many principles in place which encourage us to agree that the deliberate taking of a human life, especially in circumstances where the person killed is defenceless against the invincible power of the state and where the state's action constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, is morally wrong. It may well be that our feelings are often outraged at the particular barbarity of the original murder, that the guilt of the murderer is beyond doubt, that he or she shows no signs of repentance, and that society carries a considerable cost for incarcerating a murderer for life, all that may be true. None of it, however, removes from us the awareness that for a group of rational human beings to sanction the state killing of an individual, especially when there is no immediate threat to any other individual or to the state collectively, is never morally justifiable. (226 words)
Sample Paragraph B
The argument that we need capital punishment in order to reduce the cost of maintaining the penal system is quite misplaced. There is no evidence that executing murderers will save us money. A number of studies of this question have shown that, on average, it costs about $50,000 per year to keep a maximum security offender in jail (Schneider, 1990; Ross and Sinclair 1996). A person who serves, say, a 25-year sentence, therefore, costs the state about $1,250,000. However, in countries which show some concern about the rights of the accused to a full and fair process, a system which has capital punishment for murder requires far more elaborate trials and a much lengthier and more expensive appeal process for capital offences than for non-capital offences. In addition, the cost of the execution itself is not insignificant. Recent studies by Gardner (1998) have shown that in the United States the cost of the various judicial processes and of the execution for convicted murderers is up to 30 percent higher than the cost of keeping them in jail for life. Other similar studies by McIntyre (1990) and Jackson (1995) have come to the same conclusion. There is, in other words compelling reason seriously to question one of the most frequent claims made in support of capital punishment: that it will reduce costs significantly. In fact, if saving money is the main concern in the penal system, we should get rid of capital punishment immediately. (244 words)
Both of these paragraphs are opposing capital punishment. The first is arguing deductively. It does not appeal to facts but to agreed principles which it applies to the example of capital punishment. The second is arguing inductively. It presents information, data, statistics gathered by research.
Notice that each paragraph begins with a clear topic sentence which announces the opinion being presented in the paragraph, and each finishes by bringing the reader back to that opinion. And each paragraph is substantial, more than 200 words. It deals with the point thoroughly.
8.2 Paragraphs Making Inductive Argument
Most of the argumentative paragraphs you write will resemble the second example above, that is, they will be presenting inductive arguments, based upon evidence. As we have already discussed, the strength of this argument is going to depend, in part, upon the nature of the evidence you present. No inductive argument which lacks reliable evidence will be persuasive.
Sources of Evidence
Evidence comes from many places, depending upon the nature of the argument you are making. Here are some of the principal sources for evidence in inductive arguments:
1. In essays on literature, the evidence comes almost entirely from the text of the work you are evaluating, that is, from the words on the page. Hence, an important principle in writing convincing arguments about literature is sticking closely to the text and anchoring what you have to argue on specific details which are really in the text, either with direct references to such details or with quotations.
2. Essays about films or the fine and performing arts get their evidence from what the work itself contains. For instance, a film or a CD review should base itself closely on what people actually see and hear. A review of a painting or an art exhibition bases itself what is in the art works.
3. Evidence can also come from your own research, that is, from data you yourself have collected as part of field work (e.g., questionnaire results) or experimental data you have collected in the laboratory.
4. Evidence also comes from secondary sources, that is, from books, articles, reports about the subject you are discussing. This is particularly the case in social science and science arguments (like the second example in Section 8.1 above) and in research papers generally. In using such evidence, as we have mentioned before, it is important that you select an up-to-date and reliable source (and one that is recognized as reliable).
Evidence does not come from sources which cannot be checked (for example, imagined details of a fictional story or unacknowledged secondary sources or subjective recesses of the writer's memories) or vague appeals to unspecified authorities or named celebrities.
A really important principle of inductive arguments is the following: Evidence by itself is rarely persuasive, unless the writer interprets the significance of that evidence. In other words, once you have placed some facts into the argument, you must discuss those facts to show how they establish the point you are arguing in the paragraph.
This is a crucial point, especially in arguments about literature. It is never enough in a paragraph arguing about a point in literature simply to offer a quotation from the text or a series of such quotations. While such evidence is essential, it is unpersuasive unless the writer then interprets that evidence, that is, offers a discussion about what the quotation contains which suggests that the point of view advanced in the paragraph is valid.
The same point holds for statistical evidence. Simply presenting a table of data, for example, in support of an argumentative point is not very persuasive, unless, immediately after the table, the writer then directs the reader's attention at those details in the table which are relevant and explains how they support the argumentative point which the paragraph is trying to make.
Here is an example of a paragraph from an essay on Hamlet in which the writer is presenting an inductive argument, using details from the text to support a claim about the play. Notice that the argument does not just offer evidence; it interprets that evidence to show how it helps to endorse the claim made in the topic sentence:
Hamlet's opening soliloquy in 1.2 reveals immediately that he is in a very peculiar emotional state, in contrast to everyone else at court. The prevailing sense is clearly that of a personality morbidly obsessed with death and preoccupied in a most unhealthy way with female sexuality. The emphasis on death comes out clearly in the references to suicide (129-132). And there runs throughout the speech a sense of hatred for fertility and sexuality in the world. Notice especially the following lines:
'Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. (135-137)
Here we see what later emerges as a characteristic tendency in Hamlet to reduce human experience to the lowest, most unsatisfactory terms. For him life is a "garden," but he rejects all the conventionally pleasant (even paradisal) associations of that term, by seeing the place as "unweeded," a place where vigorous and unchecked wild nature has taken over in a riot of reproductive energy. The adjectives "rank" and "gross" convey a strong sense of disgust, with marked sexual undertones, and the last word in the sentence, "merely," sounds almost like a sneer. If we recognize from his refusal to participate in the action at the court a sense that he is, right at the start of the play, alienated from the social life of the court, then his manner of expressing himself to himself, that is, of thinking aloud, creates an initial feeling of an overreaction arising from some desire to see the worst. It is true that Hamlet has just lost his father, and his mother has remarried his uncle. But this does not appear to upset anyone else unduly, so the very strong language he uses here to express his deepest thoughts immediately conveys to the reader the suggestion of an unhealthy and excessively morbid response to loss. (302 words)
Notice that in the above paragraph the writer has selected a few details from a particular part of the text and drawn the attention of the reader to them. But she has not simply left the evidence there for the reader to figure out. She takes almost all the second half of the paragraph to comment on the evidence she has introduced, explaining to the reader how it brings out the point which she has announced as the topic for the paragraph (i.e., interpreting the evidence).
Make quite sure you understand this point. Evidence requires interpretation which links the facts to the point being made in the topic sentence of the paragraph. It will not satisfactorily carry the argument unless the writer makes this connection for the reader. Thus, if your inductive arguments merely present evidence, with no interpretation, they will not be very persuasive, no matter how much evidence you introduce, because the reader will fail to understand the ways in the which the evidence substantiates the points you are trying to establish. Do not think that the quantity of evidence (smothering the reader with quotations, statistics, and other data) will carry the argument without your interpretative explanations.
Now, interpretation is something students tend at first to find difficult (hence they tend to supply far too much evidence without discussion). Interpretation requires an educated response to data (an eye for significant detail) and a suitable vocabulary to express that response. Hence, much of the work in undergraduate courses involves educating students in ways of interpreting the data most relevant to the field of study. And if your arguments are going to be at all persuasive in the details you present, you have to learn how to carry out such interpretation.
Once you begin to grasp and to practice this principle of interpreting the evidence you introduce, you should be using up most of the paragraph for this purpose (as in the above example). And your argumentative style will begin to change, so that you introduce less evidence but discuss in greater detail the evidence you do introduce.
When students complain, as they often do, of not having enough to say about a particular topic, of having said all they have to say and still having many hundreds of words to complete the requirements of the argument, the reason is always the same: there is insufficient interpretation. The essay may be establishing good topic sentences and putting useful evidence on the table. But a main part of the argument, the interpretation of evidence, is missing. By contrast, students who learn to interpret properly then often face a problem of not having enough space, since thorough interpretation takes up much of the essay.
In general, the best essays tend to be those with a relatively narrow focus, in which the evidence presented is good evidence but not overwhelming in volume, and in which the interpretation of the evidence presented is first-rate and thorough. The quality of the interpretation, in fact, is one of the key features characterizing an A essay.
8.3 Some Important Symptoms of Poor Argumentative Paragraphs
Given the points mentioned above, you can often recognize quite easily by some characteristic symptoms whether your essay is fulfilling the requirements of a good inductive argument.
1. If your paragraphs are quite short (i.e., less than, say, 150 words), then they are almost certainly not carrying out a thorough argument. As should be clear from the various examples given above, introducing the topic sentence, presenting evidence, and interpreting the evidence in detail should take up a substantial amount of space. So if, when you look at the visual appearance of your essay, you notice that the paragraphs are changing very five or six lines, then something is wrong. It most cases, the problem will be that you are not doing enough interpretation.
2. As you review your essay, look carefully at those places where you have quoted some material, either from the text which is the subject of the argument or from a secondary source. Ask yourself this question: What is going on in the essay immediately after the quotation? If you are not at that point discussing the significance of the quotation for the argument the paragraph is making (i.e., interpreting the quotation), then you are probably neglecting an essential part of the argument.
3. Finally, how much of each paragraph is taken up with quotations from the text or from secondary sources? If these make up the major part of the paragraph, then you are probably overloading the argument with evidence and not providing sufficient interpretation of the evidence. As a general rule, select the best evidence available, and interpret it thoroughly, rather than trying to stuff the essay with quotations.
8.4 Paragraph Unity
A key characteristic of good paragraphs is that they exhibit unity, that is, everything in the paragraph is linked directly to the main point announced in the topic sentence. There are no digressions into other subjects or additional points brought into the middle of the paragraph. Everything is relevant to the single argumentative point of that paragraph.
Notice in the following paragraph how the logic of the argument announced in the topic sentence begins to go astray as soon as the writer introduces another point, not directly linked to the topic:
Elisa's main problem in this story is that she is uncertain about her femininity. We sense this problem in the way she dresses, something emphasised in the opening description of her. Her figure looks "blocked and heavy." She wears a man's hat pulled low over her face. She does wear a dress, but that is almost totally concealed under a heavy apron, so that we get the impression of a woman who is hiding something, a sense that is strongly reinforced by the narrator's description of her clothes as a "costume," something worn by actors impersonating someone else. The setting also sound quite isolated and lonely, as if there is no daily human contact with a community of friends. And the fact that the story is set at a time when the fields are "brown" and without a crop evidently coming to fruition, a time of "waiting," creates a sense that Elisa has no immediate fulfilment in her daily life. Elisa's conduct when the stranger arrives is thus quite understandable; she is uncertain about how to deal with a sudden intrusion, especially a strange man. All these details reveal clearly that Elisa has some significant emotional insecurities.
This paragraph begins by announcing a very specific topic, the relationship between the description of Elisa's clothing and our sense of her uncertainty about her femininity. And the first few details focus on that well, with evidence and useful interpretation. But then the writer switches to something else (the setting) and then, a bit later, to something else (the arrival of the stranger). Hence, by the end the reader has lost contact with the specific point announced at the start. Thus, the unity of this paragraph has disappeared.
It is important to concentrate on paragraph unity and to keep out of a paragraph things not immediately relevant to what the topic sentence announces. If you suddenly decide that there is an important point you must include in the argument, make it in a separate paragraph.
One way in which inexperienced writers commonly interrupt the unity of the paragraph (and the argument) is suddenly to stray into large questions far outside the scope of the focus you have defined. Once you start the argument, you should stay specifically on that, without invoking huge generalizations which lie outside the specific area you have defined. If you want to link the argument to bigger questions, then do that in the conclusion.
For example, if you are writing an argumentative essay about the significance of Hamlet's abusive treatment of women in Hamlet, then stay on that particular subject. Do not stray into generalizations about men and women or about the history of Denmark or gender-based violence or the treatment of the same theme in other plays. If you find yourself writing about something in general, something not directly pertinent to the specific details of the argument as you have defined it, then you are almost certainly weakening the unity of the argument.
8.5 Paragraph Coherence
A second important characteristic of argumentative paragraphs is that they must be coherent, that is, the argument going on in them must flow logically from sentence to sentence, so that the reader moves from the opening declaration of the topic (in the topic sentence), through the evidence and interpretation, to the conclusion of the paragraph in a clear linear fashion, with no erratic jumps or confusing interruptions.
A Useful Blueprint for Achieving Paragraph Coherence
The most logically coherent form for a paragraph presenting an inductive argument is as follows:
1. Topic sentence, an argumentative assertion announcing the main point the paragraph is seeking to make, perhaps followed by one or two sentences reinforcing and clarifying the argumentative stance in this paragraph;
2. Evidence in the form of direct references to the text, quotations, statistics, summaries of relevant research data, and so on.
3. Interpretation of the evidence, a section which discusses in detail how the particular evidence you have introduced helps to back up the argumentative point announced in the topic sentence;
4. (Optional) Any qualifications you want to introduce to limit the argument, and especially to clarify the reliability of the evidence and thus the interpretations you have made of it (for examples, see below);
5. Final summary point bringing the reader back to the point stressed in the topic sentence.
This is by no means the only possible coherent structure for an argumentative paragraph, but, if you follow it closely, the resulting argument will be coherent, since this follows the standard logic of an inductive argument: This is what I am claiming; here is my evidence; this is what the evidence indicates; here are any reservations I have about the evidence; and thus I have established the claim I began with.
Notice how this format works in the following paragraph, moving from topic sentence(s) to evidence, to interpretation, to qualification, and finally to a restatement of the original point. Here again, the references are imaginary, included simply to show an example of the style.
It is clear that our attempts to control the spread of illegal narcotics are not producing the results we had hoped for, and it is thus high time we assessed the value of our anti-drug measures. As we redouble our efforts and give the police additional powers, the street price of illegal narcotics continues to decline, a sure sign that the supply is becoming more plentiful (Jackson, 1997). A recent study of the street trade in Vancouver confirms our worst fears: addiction is increasing in the city, street prices are falling, and the illegal infrastructure is growing in power (Callows, 1998). Other studies of the same city have shown that there is an increasing supply reaching school children (Smart, 1995; Stuart, 1997). This increase is naturally producing more young addicts (Thomas, 1997). What do these results indicate? It doesn't take much brain power to figure out that the war on drugs, for which we are paying so much money, is not having much success, if reducing or eliminating the supply is still a major goal. It's true that we have to be careful with the results of some of these studies, for their methods are not always as reliable as they might be, and there are often political agendas at work in the studies of our narcotics problem. Nevertheless, the recent literature, none of which offers any firm evidence that our combat against narcotics is achieving anything positive (other than enriching criminals and empowering police forces) must surely give us reason to pause before we hurl millions more dollars into programmes which are not working. For there is no evidence at all that such an expenditure will achieve anything socially helpful. The money will, we can be certain, largely go to waste. (292 words)
Transition Words as Logical Indicators
The key to sustaining the coherence of a paragraph is often the appropriate use of transition words. These are words or phrases, usually right at the start of a sentence, which indicate the logical direction of the new sentence in relation to what has just been said. They link what has just been written to what is now being offered.
Here are a few examples (the transition elements are in bold).
In addition to this point, there are many studies which establish a relationship between the income of one's parents and success in school.
By contrast, other passages of the poem suggest a totally different mood.
Thisemphasis on pharmaceutical intervention, however, brings with it real dangers. For example, the medication often brings immediately harmful side effects. Moreover, it can also create long-term addiction. Beyond that, there is the question of the expense. This being the case, one wonders why we are so keen to continue with this medication.
Moreover, rock 'n' roll music has exercised an important influence on civil rights in North America. In fact, in popular music since the 1950's, more than in any other activity (with the possible exception of professional sports), black people have won fame, fortune, and lasting status among the white middle-class. For example, thousands of eager white people all over North America have lined up to attend concerts by Prince, Michael Jackson, Chubby Checker, Tina Turner, the Supremes, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and many, many other black performers. In addition, black singing stars have ever since the late 1950's been in demand with companies seeking high-profile figures to endorse products aimed at the white middle classes. Indeed, it is now a common sight to see white and black performers working together on prime-time television, without regard to the colour of their skins. This phenomenon, we sometimes forget, is very different from the situation before the 1950's. Then, in some places no white group could appear on stage with a drummer (white or black), because the drum was considered a black instrument. Moreover, there was a rigidly enforced distinction between black music and white music. Radio stations, for instance, played one type of music or the other, not both. However, since the advent of rock 'n' roll all that has altered. To be sure, many other factors were involved in this important and complex social change. That cannot be denied. Still, we should not deny our popular musicians the credit which is their due. For without their pervasive influence and talent, often in difficult conditions, this improvement in race relations would have come about much more slowly than it did.
Look carefully at these words in bold. Most of them could be removed from the sentences, without damage to the sense. What would be lost, however, is the constant presence of words and phrases linking elements in the argument and providing the reader a sense of the logical relationship of the element coming up to what has gone before.
An intelligent use of transition words really helps to create and sustain the coherence of a paragraph, enabling the reader easily to follow the logical connections from one sentence to the next.
A Catalogue of Transition Words
The list below indicates some of the common transition words indicating logical connections between sentences and paragraphs. The words are grouped according to the logical function they carry out (this list is not meant to be comprehensive).
1. Words indicating a continuity with what has gone before: and, in addition, moreover, furthermore, also, indeed, besides, secondly, next, similarly, again, equally important, beyond that.
2. Words indicating an example or illustration of a point introducing evidence: for example, for instance, as an illustration.
3. Words adding emphasis to a point which is reinforcing a previous point: in fact, in other words, that is, indeed, as a matter of fact.
4. Words indicating a conclusion from or a result of what you have just been discussing: thus, hence, therefore, consequently, as a result.
5. Words indicating a contrast with what has just been said: but, however, nevertheless, by contrast, on the other hand, conversely.
6. Words indicating a qualification, doubt, or reservation about what you have just been discussing: no doubt, of course, to be sure.
7. Words indicating a summary statement is coming up: in short, all in all, in brief, in conclusion, to conclude, given all this.
8. Pronoun and adjectival links to something which has gone before: this, that, the above-mentioned, such.
9. Words establishing time relationships (important in narrative paragraphs): after, afterwards, then, later, before, while, at the same time, immediately, thereupon, next, meanwhile, subsequently, previously, simultaneously.
10. Words indicating spatial relationships (important in physical descriptions): above, beside, next to, on the other side, facing, parallel, across from, adjacent.
An Exercise in Transition Words
In the spaces provided in the following paragraph, provide from the list above (or from other similar phrases) transition words or phrases which will help the logical coherence of the following paragraph. Read the paragraph once or twice before starting to fill in the blank spaces. Then, when you have finished, read the passage over again, making sure the words are helping to clarify the logic of the sequence of sentences.
The claim is often made that conducting conventional research and
publishing the results in academic journals is essential to maintain a
high quality of instruction of undergraduates. _____________ this
claim is so common, that it is part of the official policy of the
Canadian Association of University Teachers. _____________ it is
not uncommon for evaluations of the quality of teaching at a
post-secondary institution to factor in the research output of the
faculty. ____________ is this claim true? __________ is it the case
that college teachers cannot do a good job unless they maintain a
research output? Well, a number of studies suggest that there is no
basis for this belief. _________________ a study by Johnston (1991)
which explored the various studies of this question concluded that
results consistently show no relationship between the quality of
undergraduate instruction and research output. ______________
there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence which claims the same
thing. _______________ there is no reliable evidence that there is a
significant connection between the two activities, something which
would support the common claim. _____________ the frequent
emphasis on the importance of research to maintain an acceptable
level of undergraduate teaching would appear to be unproven, a
cultural myth perhaps designed to perpetuate what faculty want to do
rather than what the most urgent priorities of the institution really are.
___________ this is a difficult question, because teaching quality is
notoriously difficult to assess. ___________, given the amount of
money spent to reduce the number of classes taught in order to
promote research activity, one would think that some evidence would
be required to justify the practice. ___________ this does not seem to
bother most institutions. __________ they cheerfully continue to
spend instructional money to support research. _________ the faculty
keep demanding more time away from class in order to be better
8.6 Concluding Paragraphs
An argumentative essay should normally finish with a conclusion and sometimes, depending on the subject, with conclusions and recommendations. The conclusions and recommendations (if there are any) should be placed in the last paragraph(s).
Good conclusions are often difficult to write. It is best to leave them until you have finished the first draft of the paper, so that you have a complete sense of the argument as you have presented it. Now you are ready to leave the reader with some final concluding thoughts.
In thinking about how to write a conclusion, you might benefit from onsidering the following ideas:
1. The conclusion should not continue the argument by introducing new material. It is a place to sum up the argument which has come to an end in the final paragraph of the main body of the argument. Hence, you should never introduce new points in the conclusion.
2. The main purpose of the conclusion is to sum up the argument, to re-emphasize the thesis, and to leave the reader thinking about the importance of the argument, perhaps in a wider context. In a sense, its purpose is the reverse of the introduction: the conclusion moves the reader from the particular emphasis of the argument and takes it out into a wider context (if this seems confusing, check some of the examples below).
3. There are a number of things a writer should be careful not to do in the concluding paragraph. You should not, as mentioned, suddenly introduce a new point, nor should you disqualify the argument you have just presented with a comment like "But all this is just my opinion," or "But I really don't know that much about the subject." Make sure the conclusion is a confident reassertion of the main point of the argument.
4. Here are some things you might do in a conclusion: you can sum up the argument you have conducted and re-emphasize the thesis you set down at the beginning, you can move back from the specific focus and place the argument in a larger context (see example below), you can leave the reader with some specific recommendations or questions to think about, or you can point to the future and invite the reader to consider what you have said in that context.
Here are some sample conclusions. Notice how the writer does not continue the argument (which is over) but tends to draw back to place the issue in a wider perspective and, at the same time, to reinforce for the reader the central argument which the essay has been presenting.
Conclusion A(from an essay arguing that Hamlet's character is not that of the ideal prince but is badly flawed)
All of the above points indicate quite clearly that, whatever the origin of the evil in Elsinore, the prince himself is one source of the sickness in the court. As we have seen, again and again in the play Shakespeare brings out Hamlet's essential immaturity, morbidity, aggressive hostility to women, and characteristic duplicity. Of course, there is more to the man than just these elements and more to the play than just the character of the prince. Moreover, Hamlet's character, like the play, is very complicated and ambiguous. It will always have elusive elements. However, as this essay has argued, the emphasis on the unhealthy aspects of Hamlet's personality is so strong and frequent in the play that, however we finally assess the hero, we must take into account his own obvious inadequacies, all too clearly a source, if not the only source, for the "something . . . rotten in the state of Denmark."
Conclusion B(from an essay arguing that the failure of the Meech Lake Accord was a direct result of the ineptitude of the federal government)
Well, we no longer have a Meech Lake debate. And the federal government's next initiative on the troublesome question of the Canadian constitution and the status of Quebec is anybody's guess. Given the feelings generated by the almost interminable Mulroney-sponsored debate over the accord and the many miscalculations of the national mood, factors which scuttled government strategy, it seems unlikely that the federal Conservatives will be eager to resurrect a national soul-searching on constitutional questions. Besides, it appears as if Quebec and the native people will be setting the agenda in the months ahead. But when the time comes for another national effort on the constitution, we can only hope that the federal government will be considerably more astute than the Mulroney Tories, who turned a potential agreement into a nation-wide desire to separate.
Conclusion C(from an essay arguing that the only rational solution to our narcotics problem is to legalize all drugs)
Surely it's time we recognized the facts of life: that our efforts to stamp out illegal narcotics are only succeeding in enriching organized crime, providing the police with dangerous new powers, filling our prisons with young people, and encouraging many others to break the law. And, as I have mentioned, we need to remember that the narcotics we are trying to stamp out are less dangerous than many legal substances in widespread use. So instead of devising new utopian and increasingly expensive and futile schemes to eliminate drugs, we should move at once to change the law and to make cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and their derivatives as legal as tobacco, alcohol, Valium, and Ritalin.
Notice carefully what each writer does in the above samples.
Conclusion A (about Hamlet) opens by summarizing the main thrust of the argument throughout the paper, reminding the reader one more time of what each paragraph has been presenting. Then the writer moves back to consider the topic in the context of the entire play, adding a qualification to indicate that she realizes there is more to the topic than one short essay can deal with. Finally, the concluding sentences answer the qualification by stressing the main point: the unhealthy aspects of Hamlet's character are a significant part of the play. This strategy of using the conclusion to place the specific issue of the essay in the wider context of the entire work is often useful in conclusions to essays on literary subjects.
Conclusion B (about Meech Lake), now that the argument is over, speculates about the future. What is going to happen next? In offering a couple of general answers to that question, the writer calls attention to the main points in the essay, the incompetent handling of the issue by the federal government. There is no call here for future action, because the writer is not recommending anything. He is making a tentative prediction (or mentioning a future hope). This enables him to reinforce the main point of the essay. Such a conclusion is often helpful in an essay discussing a modern political or historical issue.
Conclusion C(about narcotics) opens with a quick but very specific summary (almost in the form of a list) of the main points of the essay (each of which has been discussed in detail during the main argument), and finishes with a specific recommendation for future action. Such a structure is quite common in the concluding paragraph of an essay exploring a modern social issue and demanding action.
Sometimes the argument you are conducting will require recommendations, in fact, your thesis may well be in the form of one or more recommendations. Such a requirement is quite common in arguments which are urging the need for particular social or political responses to problems.
The first thing to note is that a recommendation is not the same thing as a conclusion. A conclusion arises, as we have seen, out of a deductive or inductive argument. It is the logical result of a process of reasoning, and it indicates the completion of a thought process. A recommendation is, as the name suggests, a statement urging action. Alternatively put, a conclusion says, in effect, "This is the case" or "This is very probably the case"; a recommendation says "This is what we must (or should) do about the case."
Logically speaking, recommendations should normally follow conclusions. That is, the thought process and argument which result in our understanding a problem better should come before the proposals for how we should address the problem. This, I take it, is generally obvious enough. We cannot review options and recommend a course of action, until we have drawn conclusions about what the problem is.
None of this is something you need worry about, unless the argument is leading up to a series of recommendations, unless, that is, the major purpose of the argument is to urge the readers to think about a series of practical measures which should be implemented. Such a requirement is not uncommon in papers exploring social problems or policy analysis, but it is rare in arguments about literature or philosophy. If you are leading up to a series of recommendations as a major purpose of the argument, then separate the conclusions from the recommendations, present the conclusions first, and then in a separate paragraph present the recommendations, usually in the form of a numbered list.
Notice the following example of the end of an argument in which the conclusions precede the recommendations and the latter are presented in the form of a list:
Sample Conclusion and Recommendation Ending to a Paper
As this argument has pointed out repeatedly, there is no reliable evidence that the quality of teaching in universities and colleges is linked at all with quantity or quality of conventional research and publishing activities. Simply put, the frequent claim that conventional research is essential to good teaching has no basis in fact. It may be true, of course, but there is as yet no evidence to support the claim. Indeed the consistent result of studies into this question, as we have shown, confirm the lack of a relationship. Given this well known point, it is indeed curious that university and college faculty, whose major task is educating undergraduates in correct reasoning, should continue to insist upon such an unsubstantiated assertion in such an illogical fashion, to the point where it has become an article of faith in faculty culture, a myth. It is beyond the scope of this paper to explore why that might be the case; suffice it to say that we should keep this conclusion in mind when we evaluate how to spend the money we allocate for undergraduate instruction.
On the basis of this well established conclusion, however, we should insist upon some important reforms in undergraduate education, especially in the university-colleges, which, unlike most large universities, have no mandate to conduct research:
1. The instructional budget should provide no release time for instructors to conduct research (i.e., we should not cut classes and courses to fund independent faculty research), unless there is some exceptional need for a particular project to deal with a problem of immediate importance to the institution.
2. Instructors should, under no circumstances, be ranked or evaluated according to their research output.
3. The processes of hiring new faculty should cease to consider research qualifications and performance and concentrate exclusively upon the teaching experience and qualifications of the candidates as the major criteria.
4. The curriculum should be much more closely designed to meet the learning needs of the students rather than the research interests of the faculty.
5. If prevailing faculty culture insists that research time is essential to maintain the quality of instruction, then we should inform them firmly and repeatedly that, in the interests of reason, we will listen to any arguments they wish to present, provided only there is some reliable evidence to support their claim. Until such time, however, we are going to proceed with the reforms listed above.
Notice how in this example, the conclusions come first. They sum up the argument which has already concluded. The final paragraph lists some specific recommendations and finishes by urging that we implement these.
Such a structure is, as mentioned, of particular importance only in those arguments whose main purpose is to analyze a problem, reach some conclusions about the source of the problem, and make recommendations about how we might deal with it.
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The Modes of Discourse—Exposition, Description, Narration, Argumentation (EDNA)—are common paper assignments you may encounter in your writing classes. Although these genres have been criticized by some composition scholars, the Purdue OWL recognizes the wide spread use of these approaches and students’ need to understand and produce them.
Contributors: Jack Baker, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli
Last Edited: 2013-03-10 11:46:44
What is an argumentative essay?
The argumentative essay is a genre of writing that requires the student to investigate a topic; collect, generate, and evaluate evidence; and establish a position on the topic in a concise manner.
Please note: Some confusion may occur between the argumentative essay and the expository essay. These two genres are similar, but the argumentative essay differs from the expository essay in the amount of pre-writing (invention) and research involved. The argumentative essay is commonly assigned as a capstone or final project in first year writing or advanced composition courses and involves lengthy, detailed research. Expository essays involve less research and are shorter in length. Expository essays are often used for in-class writing exercises or tests, such as the GED or GRE.
Argumentative essay assignments generally call for extensive research of literature or previously published material. Argumentative assignments may also require empirical research where the student collects data through interviews, surveys, observations, or experiments. Detailed research allows the student to learn about the topic and to understand different points of view regarding the topic so that she/he may choose a position and support it with the evidence collected during research. Regardless of the amount or type of research involved, argumentative essays must establish a clear thesis and follow sound reasoning.
The structure of the argumentative essay is held together by the following.
- A clear, concise, and defined thesis statement that occurs in the first paragraph of the essay.
In the first paragraph of an argument essay, students should set the context by reviewing the topic in a general way. Next the author should explain why the topic is important (exigence) or why readers should care about the issue. Lastly, students should present the thesis statement. It is essential that this thesis statement be appropriately narrowed to follow the guidelines set forth in the assignment. If the student does not master this portion of the essay, it will be quite difficult to compose an effective or persuasive essay.
- Clear and logical transitions between the introduction, body, and conclusion.
Transitions are the mortar that holds the foundation of the essay together. Without logical progression of thought, the reader is unable to follow the essay’s argument, and the structure will collapse. Transitions should wrap up the idea from the previous section and introduce the idea that is to follow in the next section.
- Body paragraphs that include evidential support.
Each paragraph should be limited to the discussion of one general idea. This will allow for clarity and direction throughout the essay. In addition, such conciseness creates an ease of readability for one’s audience. It is important to note that each paragraph in the body of the essay must have some logical connection to the thesis statement in the opening paragraph. Some paragraphs will directly support the thesis statement with evidence collected during research. It is also important to explain how and why the evidence supports the thesis (warrant).
However, argumentative essays should also consider and explain differing points of view regarding the topic. Depending on the length of the assignment, students should dedicate one or two paragraphs of an argumentative essay to discussing conflicting opinions on the topic. Rather than explaining how these differing opinions are wrong outright, students should note how opinions that do not align with their thesis might not be well informed or how they might be out of date.
- Evidential support (whether factual, logical, statistical, or anecdotal).
The argumentative essay requires well-researched, accurate, detailed, and current information to support the thesis statement and consider other points of view. Some factual, logical, statistical, or anecdotal evidence should support the thesis. However, students must consider multiple points of view when collecting evidence. As noted in the paragraph above, a successful and well-rounded argumentative essay will also discuss opinions not aligning with the thesis. It is unethical to exclude evidence that may not support the thesis. It is not the student’s job to point out how other positions are wrong outright, but rather to explain how other positions may not be well informed or up to date on the topic.
- A conclusion that does not simply restate the thesis, but readdresses it in light of the evidence provided.
It is at this point of the essay that students may begin to struggle. This is the portion of the essay that will leave the most immediate impression on the mind of the reader. Therefore, it must be effective and logical. Do not introduce any new information into the conclusion; rather, synthesize the information presented in the body of the essay. Restate why the topic is important, review the main points, and review your thesis. You may also want to include a short discussion of more research that should be completed in light of your work.
A complete argument
Perhaps it is helpful to think of an essay in terms of a conversation or debate with a classmate. If I were to discuss the cause of World War II and its current effect on those who lived through the tumultuous time, there would be a beginning, middle, and end to the conversation. In fact, if I were to end the argument in the middle of my second point, questions would arise concerning the current effects on those who lived through the conflict. Therefore, the argumentative essay must be complete, and logically so, leaving no doubt as to its intent or argument.
The five-paragraph essay
A common method for writing an argumentative essay is the five-paragraph approach. This is, however, by no means the only formula for writing such essays. If it sounds straightforward, that is because it is; in fact, the method consists of (a) an introductory paragraph (b) three evidentiary body paragraphs that may include discussion of opposing views and (c) a conclusion.
Longer argumentative essays
Complex issues and detailed research call for complex and detailed essays. Argumentative essays discussing a number of research sources or empirical research will most certainly be longer than five paragraphs. Authors may have to discuss the context surrounding the topic, sources of information and their credibility, as well as a number of different opinions on the issue before concluding the essay. Many of these factors will be determined by the assignment.