Skip to Main Content

Building an argument

Learn more about how to build strong arguments using different types of reasoning

He was the Commissioner of Roots and Tubers. This is one of his many adventures.

What a day. I arrived at the hollow. I walked about. I saw rocks and lots of dirt. Birds that could not fly darted about, and lizards too. The sun was bright and hot; the air, dry; the area, desolate. I wonder if we made the right decision about cultivating here. I wonder what I should do.

Yours etc.
C. of R&T

This was the report of the newly appointed Commissioner of Roots and Tubers to the esteemed members of the board.

Here was the response, written by the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), no less.

Dearest, dearest Commissioner of recent vintage. Thank you for your report, a report as mysterious as it is unexpected. This is because you write in a paratactic, running style. This is where you juxtapose clauses, phrases, or sentences, without benefit of coordinating or subordinating conjunctions. At best this style reads like a stream-of-consciousness novel; at worst it reads like incoherent gibberish, as your reasoning is opaque to your reader. What you are doing when you write in a running style is allowing your reader to make the connections, as when Caesar writes “I came; I saw; I conquered.”

Were we to rewrite Caesar’s aphoristic claim in a more hypotactic style—this is where we organize our terms and concepts using coordinating and subordinating conjunctions that make our reasoning more explicit—it might read, “Since it was me, Caesar, when I arrived on the scene I made a thorough inspection of the situation. Confident in myself and in the disposition of our newly arrived forces, I took decisive action that resulted in the complete defeat of the enemy.”

Hypotactically, dear Commissioner, is how we need you to write, because what we expect from you is analysis, not poetry, and because we cannot read your mind to puzzle through all of the connections in your thinking that you leave in your head instead of committing to the page. Please, instead, organize your prose into a lattice of logical relations and you will prosper mightily.

Oh, and also, please try to write in a pointed style. What does this mean? Begin with your point, a point in the form of a topic, a topic in the form of a topic sentence, and allow the rest of your paragraph to explore, investigate, or elaborate upon that topic only. If you discover that you have two topics, then please break your paragraph in two so that you have two separate paragraphs governed by two separate topics.

Yours etc.,
CEO of the universe

Not a day had passed until the CEO of the Universe had received the Commissioner’s revised report. It read as follows:

I arrived at the hollow and visually inspected the area on foot. Based on my observations, observations that included fauna typical of hot, arid regions, e.g. flightless birds, earth-bound reptiles, and flora that existed only in the from of grass and scrub where it existed at all, I conclude, at least for now, that the area may not support the sort of cultivation that we planned for it. Please advise.

Yours etc.
C. of R&T

This is less poetic, concluded the CEO of the Universe. In fact, the Commissioner's account is a whole lot uglier. But it is certainly more clear and explicit, because now I know, clearly and explicitly, what the Commissioner is claiming, and I know on what grounds he is basing his claim.