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Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
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College English Composition: Help and Review
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The Three Elements of an Argument

An argument breaks down into three primary categories: a strong claim (also referred to as a strong statement), reasons or justifications for the claim, and evidence supporting those reasons. For an argument to be strong, all three elements must be present. Keep in mind that even with strong reasons and evidence, an argument may still be weak if it has a poorly-designed claim.

How to Identify a Strong Claim

Claims specify what is going to be argued. When readers review a claim, they should understand the topic and scope of the argument.

Strong claims are clear, focused, and debatable.

“Humans need things to survive” is a weak claim because it lacks all three characteristics. It is not clear, because it does not specify what things a human needs to live. It is also not focused, since it attempts to address all needs that every person has – such a topic is far too broad for a single paper or debate. Finally, this claim is not debatable; it is merely a fact. No one would make an attempt to argue that humans do not need certain things to survive.

“Humans need shelter, water, and food to survive” is a slightly better claim because it is addresses specific human survival needs. However, this claim is still weak because it not focused (the type of shelter needed will depend on the time period and geographic region at hand) and not debatable (no one would debate that humans do not need shelter, water, and food to survive.)

“Modern Americans need housing, clean water, and healthy food to thrive” is better still because it is clear and focused (the claim now only addresses modern-day humans living in the United States). Yet this claim is still weak because it is not debatable.

“Congress ought to allocate $10 million to housing, clean water, and healthy food for Americans” is a strong claim, because it is clear, focused, and debatable. Whether or not Congress should allocate resources for these needs would provide adequate controversy for a paper or debate.

The most effective claims are clear, focused, and debatable.

The most effective claims are clear, focused, and debatable.

Types of Claims

While all strong claims will share certain characteristics, there are many different types of claims that fit different writing contexts. Read on for some strong statement examples.

Factual Claim

A factual claim will reframe and rely upon a fact to shape it into a debatable topic.

For instance, “The driver in question was speeding and hit and killed Mrs. Smith” is a factual sentence, but it does not make any specific arguments.

The claim “The driver in question hit and killed Mrs. Smith because he was driving over the speed limit” is a factual claim, since it reframes the two facts to craft them into a debatable argument – that the driver hit and killed Mrs. Smith because he was driving over the speed limit.

Cause and Effect Claims

A cause and effect claim argues that an event occurred as the direct result of a specific catalyst. For instance, “Mary Shelley included human rights themes in her novel Frankenstein as a result of written influence from her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote Vindication of the Rights of Woman” is a cause and effect claim because it argues that the result (Mary Shelley’s themes in Frankenstein) are a result of her mother’s influence (Mary Wollstonecraft’s writing in Vindication of the Rights of Woman).

Value Claims

A value claim will frame a moral or philosophical issue in a debatable format. For instance, “Individuals have a moral responsibility to lie if it saves a human life.” The issue of which moral principle – saving human lives or honesty – is more important is a moral debate established by the claim’s wording.

Solution Claims

A solution claim posits that specific actions must be taken (usually in the form of government intervention) to solve a problem. For instance, “The state of Arkansas should spend $4 million on school lunches for elementary-aged children to ensure success in school” is a solution claim because it seeks to address a specific problem with a specific solution.


A counterclaim is a powerful type of claim that can be built into any argumentative paper. To strengthen an argument, a writer might try to foresee an opposing claim that could theoretically weaken the writer’s stance. The writer can offer a rebuttal, or response, to show audiences that the writer or speaker at hand understands the complexities of the topic they are discussing and still believes that their claim is correct.

A counterclaim will usually include an acknowledgement of the potential argument and a rebuttal. For instance, if a writer arguing that Republics are stronger than Democracies because they allow for public input while also protecting minority groups from majority oppression, they might write, “While some might argue that a republic distances the public from political power, allowing for representatives in government only concentrates the people’s ability to effect change in a community.”

Strong vs. Weak Claim Statement Examples

Based on the descriptions above, what is the strength level of the following claim?

“Natural disasters can cause catastrophic damage.”

Answer: This is a weak factual claim. It is rooted in the reality of natural disasters and their impacts, but the statement is still weak because it is unclear (the modal verb “can” makes the statement somewhat confusing: Is the argument only that natural disasters have the potential to cause damage or that they always cause damage?) unfocused (which type of natural disaster will be discussed?), and not debatable (who could argue that all natural disasters cause damage all the time?).

In order for this claim to be strong, it would need to be rewritten in a clearer, more focused, and debatable way, such as:

“Earthquake preparedness ought to be a priority in local government, especially in underdeveloped communities.”

Here is another example. Attempt to guess the strength level of the following claim:

“Martha is a good applicant for the account manager position.”

Answer: This is a weak solution claim. It offers a clear and focused solution to a problem – Martha is a person who could hold the unfilled position. But the claim is still undebatable, since there could be many good applicants for the position. The argument would be stronger if it were rewritten as follows:

“Martha is the strongest applicant for the account manager position.”

For a final example, guess the strength level of the following claim:

“The RMS Titanic’s shortage of lifeboats resulted in 1,517 preventable deaths.”

Answer: This is a strong cause and effect claim. It is clear (the Titanic, the lifeboats, the death count are all communicated), focused (the claim is only addressing the RMS Titanic, not all shipwrecks), and debatable (even if everyone had had access to lifeboats, were all 1,517 deaths truly preventable with the damage to the ship and early 20th-century communication systems?).

Tips for Spotting a Weak Argument

A claim is only one of three elements in a strong argument. With a clear, focused, and debatable claim, writers can still craft weak arguments if they lack reasons and evidence.

Paul Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement describes the varying levels and efficacy of argument types. Arguments that attack opponents but offer no reasons or evidence are lower on the hierarchy. Ad hominem, or personal attacks, land at the bottom of the pyramid since their claims are often irrelevant and lack both reason and evidence.

Claims halfway up the hierarchy will address the argument and offer some evidence but will not address an opponent’s core reasoning.

Claims at the top of the hierarchy address the core issue at hand by refuting reasons and offering reliable evidence.

Writers should ask themselves why they believe in a certain claim to help themselves develop strong reasons.

Writers should ask themselves why they believe in a certain claim to help themselves develop strong reasons.

Strong vs. Weak Reasoning

Effective reasons will be relevant, or directly support a claim, and follow a logical process. A great way for writers to produce reasons is to ask themselves why they believe a claim is true.

Relevance is key in strong reasons. For instance, if a writer were to make a claim about String Theory, bringing up modern unitarian governments would be irrelevant and unhelpful.

Similarly, reasoning must be logical. If a writer were to craft an argument about whether George should receive a raise, arguments about his work ethic and dependability would be logical avenues, instead of arguing about the spiffiness of his hats or the likability of his cats. Even if those reasons are true, they have no logical application to the issue at hand.

Good reasons are included in the following example. If Janice is applying for a scholarship, she could craft a strong argument by describing her grade point average, her extracurricular activities, and her involvement in her community. All three reasons are relevant, logical, and answer the question as to why she should earn a scholarship.

Strong vs. Weak Evidence

Strong evidence is relevant, convincing, and credible.

Evidence must be rooted in verifiable fact – sources matter! An opinion from an unverified source is not equal to a peer-reviewed source from a reliable website.

For instance, if a writer were arguing about the history of women’s rights in the United States, a peer-reviewed journal on an academic website would be a much more reliable source than commentary from an unknown author on an opinion blog.

Lesson Summary

Argumentative writing requires strong claims, or statements that are clear, focused, and debatable. Different types of claims (factual, cause and effect, solution, etc.) can be used based on the topic and audience, but all claims require logical reasons and reliable evidence in order to contribute to a strong argument. Strong arguments will also involve rebuttals, or responses to potential counterclaims. Good writing will also be selective with relevant, logical reasons and verifiable evidence.

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