Sometimes writing instructors assign specific types of arguments. These arguments have different purposes and will require different writing strategies. These purposes and strategies require writers to assume different roles. If assigned one of these arguments, you may find yourself investigating a cause, defining a term, evaluating a product, or solving a problem. You’ll still be arguing and using rhetorical principles to make these arguments, but you’ll need to consider your role as you compose your argument.
In a causal argument, a writer must argue about a problem’s or controversy’s cause. Causal arguments are difficult because most controversial issues have complicated causes. Many people will also tend to believe causes that correspond to their political beliefs when considering causes. Consider the various explanations for school shootings. Some will insist the problem is the easy availability of firearms while others will insist that shooters are inspired by violent video games and entertainment. When making a causal argument, a writer should consider their biases and rely on evidence to support their claims.
In a causal argument, writers may be tempted by logical fallacies. For example, it’s important to remember the correlation is not equal to causation. If two events happen at the same time, that doesn’t necessarily mean that one event caused the other. We only have to consider an extreme example to see this. Imagine someone saying, “John wrecked his car last night when the moon was full, and Jim did the same. The full moon must have affected their driving.” While most people wouldn’t believe this, we can investigate other possible causes. Were there poor road conditions? Were Jim and/or John drunk? Driving unsafely? People will make similar errors when one event follows another. To avoid making these mistakes, writers should consider alternative causes when making a causal argument; these are opposing views that should be considered. If you find an alternative explanation stronger than your initial version, then you should make that your paper’s conclusion.
This type of argument may seem puzzling. How do we argue about a word’s definition? Isn’t that what dictionaries are for? For most definition arguments, the real argument isn’t the precise meaning of the word. Instead, the argument is about the implications of that definition and how the definition may be applied to specific situations. Consider the word “obscene.” One dictionary defines “obscene” as “offensive or disgusting by accepted standards of morality and decency.” A writer may want to argue that Playboy is obscene. Or that a recent controversial film is obscene. By making this kind of argument, the writer would suggest some course of action: the obscene material should be age-limited, should be condemned, or should be banned. In this kind of paper the author would make claims about “accepted standards” and “offensive or disgusting” as they apply to the potentially obscene item.
Many popular arguments rely of definitions. Determining whether something is obscene or offensive is just one popular item. As part of the War on Terror, we’ve argued about the meaning of “torture” and its justification. Many death penalty arguments rely upon the terms “cruel and unusual punishment.” The Iraq war inspired many arguments about “just” and “unjust” wars, as did the Vietnam war did decades earlier.
You may be more familiar with evaluation arguments than you realize. If you’ve ever read a movie, restaurant, or other product review, you’ve read an evaluation argument. As online shopping and social media have expanded, you may have even written your own evaluation argument on Amazon, Google, or Yelp. A good evaluation argument will rely upon clear criteria. “Criteria” (singular “criterion”) are the conditions by which you make your evaluation; these conditions could be used to evaluate any thing that’s in the same category. A restaurant review may be based upon the food quality, price, service, and ambiance of the restaurant. An evaluation should also consider the specific category of what’s being evaluated: one shouldn’t evaluate a local pub with the same criteria as a fine dining establishment. By establishing a narrow category, the writer can write a more accurate evaluation.
A writer should strive to be fair when writing a review. You’ve probably seen a one-star Amazon review that says something like “The product arrived three days late.” This probably isn’t a fair review of the product, as its makers may have had no role in the product’s untimely delivery. When directing praise or blame in an evaluation consider how much to weigh each criteria and even the criteria against each other. Audience is important for a review. For example, a writer reviewing a horror movie for a horror fan website would probably offer a different review than a writer for The New York Times.
Evaluation arguments aren’t only used with products or services. Evaluation arguments are useful for supporting or opposing public policies or proposed laws. A community may propose several solutions to deal with a school district’s budget woes. A teacher from that district may write a guest editorial arguing for the best policy, or write an article criticizing a poor choice.
Proposal Argument (Problem/Solution)
Proposal arguments require the writer to perform two tasks: argue that there is a problem, and then propose a solution to that problem. Usually, the problem will be a local problem: Pueblo, Colorado has a high teen pregnancy rate. It’s good to focus on a smaller community because national or global problems or much more complex. In the United States, many states have varying laws and approaches to problems, so arguing about a problem is difficult. Additionally, Portland, Oregon may suffer from different problems than Portland, Maine. Writing an argument that addresses those complexities is often beyond the capability of most first year students and beyond the scope of the short papers assigned in a composition class.
Proposals have two separate arguments. The first is the problem: it’s not enough to label an issue a problem; a writer must prove that the problem is severe to an audience. Take, for instance, the opioid crisis. A writer may need to convince community members who aren’t addicts why the crisis is a problem for their community, so it’s not enough to discuss how addiction hurts addicts. Showing how the community is harmed by the crime associated with addiction might motivate a community to solve the problem. The key to establishing a problem is showing that the problem is severe to the audience because a proposal is asking readers to fix the problem.
The second argument is the solution. Explain what the solution is and how it solves the problem. A writer should establish that their solution is the best solution. The best solution is the cheapest solution that best addresses the problem. “Cheapest” here refers not just to monetary costs. While monetary costs are important, there are other costs. What are the labor costs of the solution? How will people’s lives be changed? How might people be angered by the solution or its implementation? “Addressing the problem” is an acknowledgment that most proposals won’t completely solve a problem. The goal is a reasonable solution that eliminates most of the harm, or the most serious harm, caused by the problem. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of proposals is considering the unintended consequences of a solution. These can be positive or negative. Writers should ask “What happens next?” of their solutions. Will a solution that lowers teen pregnancies also improve the dropout rate in the school district? Will it also require more resources be moved from other school programs?
If assigned one of these types of arguments, it’s important to carefully read the assignment instructions, as instructors will varying the length, research requirements, and topic limits. The assignment instructions should specify:
- The paper’s length
- Outside source requirements
- Citation systems
- Specific organization strategies
- Other requirements specific to your course or institution
A category of artistic composition, but writing instructors often expand this definition to include different types of written work