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Building an argument

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

Lessons to draw from the commissioner parables

The two parables dramatize the three developmental stages that writers, in my experience, pass through as they attempt to write discursively. The Commissioner's first report represents the first developmental level:

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.

At this level the writer is sharing with you his or her narrative of story--he or she is recounting events, or reporting in a narrative style what he or she read in an article. This is reportage; capable, competent, and appropriate in some rhetorical situations or genres of discourse, but it falls short of analysis or argument. Note the revision:

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.

In the revision, the writer simply recasts the information articulated in a paratactic, running style, into a more hypotactic, expository (or explanatory) style, a style in which the elements are now linked on logical-conceptual grounds in a discursive order. The structure is no longer this and this and then that, but rather this, therefore that, and based on that I conclude this and this. The revision demonstrates how you can take the same information and organize it by means of logical-conceptual relations specified in terms like because, although, unless, in conclusion etc.

At the second developmental level--and I have no idea why this style of discourse always appears when and where it does, as the intermediate stage between narrative-parataxis and argument-analysis--the writer quotes from a source and then appends a comment in the guise of a conclusion, as the writer's interlocutor notes:

The soil in the hollow is too sandy, too poor in nutrients to support savoury roots and tubers, said the Director of Earthworks and Irrigation. Thus and therefore—hence, and in grim conclusion—we may rest confident in the metaphysical certainty that the soils of our hollow will not support the savoury roots and tubers that will bring delight to our stewpots and joy to our soup-bowls.

The bold part is the quote; the italicized portion is the comment. The writer's interlocutor responds correctly:

Your report, such as it is, reduces to a quote to which you attach a comment as if it were a conclusion, when it is not a conclusion but is rather a paraphrase of the chief claim of the quote itself. In other words, you lead your reader in a circle, and not a very broad one.

In the revision the writer intrudes multiple times to tell you what he is doing, how is no longer simply quoting-and-commenting, but rather developing a genuine argument by means of interrogating his source. Even so, the writer's revision reflects the final developmental level, genuine argument and analysis.

This is the sort of reasoning that I am attempting to teach you.