At some point in your academic career, you’ll need to know how to analyze an argument properly. Here, tutor Andrew P. shares his guide to success…
As a college student, you’ll be expected at some point to understand, restate, comment on, or discuss someone’s assertion (strongly stated position).
An argument is a reason(s) for a conclusion.
- He is dense (reason); therefore, I won’t talk with him (conclusion).
- I won’t talk with him (conclusion) because he is dense (reason).
When asked to analyze an argument, you are expected to explain how and why something works or does not work.
- My car will not start. I realize that I left the interior lights on overnight (“you stupid idiot”)—no analysis necessary.
- My car will not start. The battery is fairly new, and the engine started right up yesterday. So, I open the hood. As soon as I begin probing to search for the reason, I am analyzing (whether or not I find the answer).
To analyze an author’s argument, take it one step at a time:
- Briefly note the main assertion (what does the writer want me to believe or do?)
- Make a note of the first reason the author makes to support his/her conclusion
- Write down every other reason
- Underline the most important reason
Here’s an example, with the analysis of the argument following:
Part of my philosophy is that a life worth living involves taking reasonable risks, whatever that may mean to a person. Without that openness, responsiveness, a person sees very little possibility for change and can sink into a rut of routines. I have known many who define themselves by their routines–and little else. These are the people an American educator spoke of when he said, “Many people should have written on their tombstones: ‘Died at 30, buried at 60.'” How sad! I think that one of the most horrible feelings a person must have is to be on the deathbed, regretting the many things never tried, and many things done that cannot be undone. I live my life to minimize possibilities of regrets, as I hope you do. Did you ever see the Sandra Bullock movie 28 Days? She plays an alcoholic in a destructive relationship with a guy who wants only to have fun. A staff person at the clinic where she is sentenced to spend 28 days for rehab explained: “Insanity is repeating the same behavior over and over and expecting different results.” Maybe more people should watch that movie. The world may not go out of its way to help you–the world does not owe us fairness–but the world is there with more possibilities than most of us imagine. If we are responsible to ourselves–and response-able, we can continue growing in directions that are good for us. We do not need to understand the future, which, after all, does not exist, has not yet been created.
Main assertion: Worthwhile life = taking reasonable risks
- Being open to possibilities vs rut of routines
- Dying with regrets for actions and inactions is horrible
- Repeating same behaviors will prevent change
- Ability to respond to new possibilities, including risks, results in growth
You can now summarize the author’s position and, if required, agree or disagree in part or in whole, offering examples from your own experiences.
Complicated, huh? Yes, it is, until you get used to developing such a reaction paper. A writing tutor can be very helpful in guiding you through this process of how to analyze an argument, step by step, until you feel confident working with this important college skill.
Andrew P. teaches English and writing in Milton, VT, as well as through online lessons. He taught English courses at colleges and universities in five states for 35 years before retiring in 2013. Learn more about Andrew here!
Photo by LOLItsLloyd
Sometimes, the best way to learn how to write a good argument is to start by analyzing other arguments. When you do this, you get to see what works, what doesn’t, what strategies another author uses, what structures seem to work well and why, and more.
Therefore, even though this section on argument analysis is one of the last lessons in this area, your professor may have you start here before you draft a single word of your own essay.
In the pages that follow, you will learn about analyzing arguments for both content and rhetorical strategies. The content analysis may come a little easier for you, but the rhetorical analysis is extremely important. To become a good writer, we must develop the language of writing and learn how to use that language to talk about the “moves” other writers make.
When we understand the decisions other writers make and why, it helps us make more informed decisions as writers. We can move from being the “accidental” writer, where we might do well but are not sure why, to being a “purposeful” writer, where we have an awareness of the impact our writing has on our audience at all levels.