Building Blocks of Argument

Don’t Build Your Arguments Out of Straw

In the story of the “three little pigs,” the quality of the building materials played a crucial role in the porkers’ survival. Unlike the houses built of straw and sticks, the house built of bricks withstood the wolf s huffing and puffing. Similarly, the quality of the materials or “building blocks” of an argument affect its integrity. If the basic elements are flimsy, an argument can be demolished easily.

In Chapter 3 we briefly introduced the basic building blocks of arguments: claims, grounds, and warrants. With that chapter as a basis, we turn now to a deeper examination of these concepts, and, in so doing, provide a foundation for constructing solid arguments. Because claims are the starting points of argument, we begin with them.

Claim Spotting: What’s Your Point?

Consider the somewhat dubious claims below.

  • • “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet” (Al Gore, in a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer, March 9, 1999).
  • • “A glass of red wine is equivalent to an hour at the gym . . .” (Daisy Mae Sitch, digital and social media manager at the Huffington Post, U.K., July 23, 2015).
  • • “HIV is not the cause of AIDS” (Peter Duesberg, molecular biologist, 1988).
  • • “An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud” (Tweet by Donald Trump on August 6, 2012).

How much stock would you place in such claims? Are some more suspect than others? Why or why not?

Evaluating claims such as these is essential to being a critical thinker. However, before you can scrutinize claims, you must first be able to identify them. How, then, do you spot a claim? As noted in Chapter 3, a claim is the point an arguer is trying to make. It may be a fact a person states, an opinion someone expresses, a request an individual makes, or a course of action an advocate recommends.

One way of recognizing claims is to think about which part of an argument is the claim and which part of an argument supports the claim. Suppose a cowpoke cautions a greenhorn at a dude ranch about a testy horse. “Buddy may be fixin’ to bite you. His ears are pinned back.”

The cowpoke’s claim or point is “Buddy may be fixin’ to bite you.” The statement “His ears are pinned back” provides support for this claim.

Another method for spotting claims is to look for “clue words,” such as thus, therefore, and hence. Suppose the cowhand said, “Zeke’s had nothing but beans for supper, hence I ain’t sleepin’ next to him in the bunkhouse.” In this case, the claim is in the last part of the sentence. The word “hence” indicates that the claim follows. Other clue words and phrases that can help you identify the claim include:





ergo (Latin for therefore)

so . . .

In sum . . .

We may conclude that . . .

It follows that. . .

The bottom line is . . .

Which proves that . . .

The truth of the matter is . . .

The most likely explanation is . . . It is clear that ....

Sometimes, however, claims are trickier to identify, especially when they are unstated or implicit. For example, a parent might tell a teenager who has missed a curfew, “Billy, it’s 2 am. You know what that means,” implying that the teen is grounded. On occasion, arguers will make oblique claims, sometimes purposefully so. Toward the end of a date, for instance, one person might tell another, “The night is young. I’ve got a nice bottle of wine back at my place.” The invitation might be for a glass of wine and friendly conversation, or something more.

When you can’t find clue words or have trouble identifying an unstated claim, you can simply ask the arguer for clarification. For instance, in the previous example, the date might clarify the other’s intention by asking, “What did you have in mind? Just a glass of wine or something more?” Other questions for clarifying the claim include:

“What exactly is your point?”

“What are you driving at?”

“Get to the point” or “Cut to the chase”

“What’s the bottom line?”

“Stop beating around the bush.”

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