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.
In a linguistics class, I learned that advanced speakers of a language will anticipate what someone is going to say before they say it a large percentage of the time. So conversation, for the most part, is boring and expected. But song lyrics are different, because logic is often abandoned in favor of poetics, so when people think they hear Elton John singing, “Hold me closer, Tony Danza,” they don’t stop to ask why.
When I shipped myself off to Spain for a semester, I was not an advanced speaker of the language. The 2-year-old in my host family understood more than I did. Her privileged position frustrated me. She was fed first, coddled, and soaking up Spanish by osmosis while my 20-year-old mind struggled to string together phrases like “I don’t like tuna fish on my pizza.”
Other students in my program were also getting lost in attempts at translation. One had gotten a charley horse in his leg while he was sitting next to his host mom and watching TV. She watched him convulse and then jerkily extend his leg and jump around the room. Once it was over, he didn’t have the Spanish word to explain, so he just sat back down. His host mom shrugged and turned her attention back to the screen.
For me, the communication barrier was made worse by the fact that January is a cold and dark month in Spain, and the air and water in my family’s home never got to a temperature that I would describe as warm. To avoid the cold, I started taking showers only when necessary and wore layers consisting of most of the clothes in my suitcase each day.
My inability to understand TV left me with a lot of spare time on my hands. I took to wandering the streets and listening to my Walkman, searching for new meanings in old songs. One gray day, U2’s “One Tree Hill” came on and the first line caught my attention: “We turn away to face the cold, enduring chill.” I wrapped my inappropriately thin sweater tighter around my body and then sat down on the nearest bench to listen to the rest of the words.
I had gone through an obsessive period with U2 a couple years earlier. I liked Bono as a lyricist and admired the fact that the band had kept its original four members for so long. I had heard that Bono wrote “One Tree Hill” after his friend died in a motorcycle accident. The song played on and another line caught my attention: “And in our world a heart of darkness, a firezone.” I had studied Heart of Darkness in my AP English class in high school. After reading a book, we used to write geeky jokes on each other’s lockers, like “Ann Marie is Mr. Kurtz’s girlfriend.” Thinking of the book made me think of all the people back home that were sound asleep in their own beds, secure in the knowledge that they would have hot showers in the morning and little chance of Spanish words creeping into their dreams. Somewhere in the midst of my nostalgia, a third line spoke to me: “Jara sang, his song a weapon, in the hands of love.” My Spanish-literature professor had talked about Victor Jara the week before. From what I could understand of the lecture, Jara was a musician in South America whose hands were cut off when he refused to stop playing his guitar as a protest. I had never understood the reference before, but the fact that I got it then lent some validity to my decision to go to Spain. And for some reason, after hearing those lines on a cold day in Spain, I had a new favorite song.
The truth is, eight years later I remembered that I had had some epiphany about the song but the details surrounding it were fuzzy, so I returned to my journal entry from that time to refresh my memory. After explaining Bono’s reason for writing the song and then my own revelations, I write, “It’s like the song has suddenly been written for me. And Bono wrote it in like 20 minutes and doesn’t even remember it! That makes it all the more divine and destinized.” Yes, “destinized.” I wish I could say this entry was an anomaly, but several of my other musings from this period also look like they were stolen from a junior-high diary. My reasons for feeling connected to the song then seem juvenile now. On some level, they don’t even make sense. AP English class and Spanish lit? Maybe I could pretend it was telling me to be an English teacher, but it doesn’t seem like the stuff of epiphanies. And what’s worse, the song and references in it are much more grave than my situation was. I mean, clearly, your friend dying, your hands being chopped off, and journeying up a river in search of a crazed man are all examples of situations that are much worse than spending a semester at the beach.
But that is a conclusion I was only able to arrive at with perspective. At the time, all that mattered to me was the fact that U2 made me feel a little less lonely during a rough time on my own. Even if my interpretation was flawed, at least I could understand the words.
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