Where there is dogma, there is always a possible basis for agreement; where there is explanation, there is always the peril of mutual understanding; where there is argument, there may be victory and the dreadful prospect of peace.
— Dorothy L. Sayers, “A Sermon for Cacaphony-Tide”
The third type of essay we discuss in this course is the persuasive or argumentative essay. In this kind of essay, you must make an argument or claim about something, then try to persuade your reader that your argument is valid and that your conclusion is true. It is possible to have a perfectly valid argument based on false premises that will lead to false conclusions. It is also possible to have an argument that is completely defective in premises and argumentation that nevertheless comes to a true conclusion. We’re going to try to ignore those freakish conditions, however, and strive for arguments that start with correct premises, use valid argumentation, and come to true conclusions.
One word of warning here: the word “argument” has become rather muddied in popular usage. We’re using it here in its older sense. Don’t confuse it here with either hostility or personal attacks! We are talking about a process that is primarily based on reason, not on emotional appeals or manipulation. There is no reason for any of this to engage personal animus.
main points for this unit
We start with the thesis statement. This is your claim, the point you want to support. A good test of a valid argument thesis statement is whether people take sides on the issue. Often an argument will not only express an evaluation, but also will suggest what it should be done about it, or how it should be changed or improved, or how it compares to other similar things. Consider the two statements:
The latter statement involves a claim that must be supported by citing evidence from actual experience of users, or by appeal to commonly accepted standards of quality in computer operating systems. Sometimes this boundary shifts: as always, you need to take your audience into account. In certain company, some statements or beliefs will be widely accepted and can be treated as adequately demonstrated; in other contexts, those very issues may well be open to question. At a convention of one of the major U. S. political parties, for example, you could probably assume that, “A democratic republic is the best form of government,” will be generally accepted. You can’t use that one on a monarchist, however.
Clarify any assumptions you consider self-evident or out of the scope of your essay, so that your reader will not expect you to provide evidence or support for them. Explain any standards you will use for purposes of evaluation. What does it mean for an operating system to be easier to use? How do you measure such a thing? Do you count the number of mouse clicks required to perform an operation? How about the number of commands that have to be typed out, as opposed to dragging and dropping icons? Must the user know how the system’s internal processes communicate in order to get anything done? Is a help icon easily available? Can most people find out what they need to know in a given amount of time?
Many companies that produce software have entire organizations devoted to “usability testing” for new computer applications: their job is to compare software based on just such criteria.
Without common criteria, you cannot expect your reader to evaluate data the way you do, or to accept your conclusions.
Limit the scope of your claim. Very general claims are hard to defend. A single exception can make you look ignorant and seriously undermine your position and authority.
For example, using our claim above, a particular operating system like the Mac OS may be more intuitively obvious and therefore easier for many people to use, more secure from hacker attacks, and more stable and less likely to crash, but it may also be more expensive, slower, and harder to integrate with other types of systems in a network situation. If your only criterion is ease of use, you may be able to support your claim adequately with examples comparing similar user operations, such as software installation, on different platforms. But if you must also consider other factors, then you may find exceptions that undermine your position.
When you write, you must not only take into account your own assumptions, but also your audience’s assumptions. If your audience is your equal with respect to the subject — either your teacher or your peers — then you can assume that most of the technical terms you use will be familiar, and you do not need to define them unless their definition is the subject of the essay or you are making a crucial distinction in the use of the term. For a more general audience, explain any technical terms, especially if they have both common meanings and a technical ones.
Be aware of your audience’s acceptance of your ideas and any source material you need to use. You should understand the source’s credentials, and the limits of those credentials. Your teacher will presumably have told you which authorities (text books, articles, specialists in the field) he or she respects. If you cite a source that your audience is likely to criticize, you may need to establish why you accept the authority of the source. For example, citing a pop singer’s opinion of a Hubble Space Telescope photograph is not generally going to be as persuasive as citing the opinion of the head of Harvard’s astronomy department.
Both terminology and authority help you establish context, the setting in which your argument takes place. Sometimes the context is established by the way the essay question is phrased.
Consider whether your audience is likely to be friendly or hostile to your answer. A good teacher will expect you to state your opinions clearly, use the sources you have been taught from honestly, and provide good reasons for your point of view, but will not be actively hostile toward your attempts. Your peers may be prepared to be excited or bored, depending on how they view their part of the assignment. A group of strangers will not be interested in your work unless you convince them that what you have to say is useful or important to them. Sometimes you need to write an essay on a controversial topic for an antagonistic audience. In this case, it is especially important to focus on stating that purpose without getting sidetracked into confronting or attacking your audience. Try stating your opponents’ position as neutrally as possible. Once you have stated the opposite position in terms that they can accept (thus showing that you have paid them the courtesy of listening to what they have been saying, and also sweeping any contested terms out of the way), they should be prepared to listen to you state your own position.
Essay Question: Bruno Bettelheim contends that Cinderella is an important story for many children because it gives them a model to identify and think about sibling rivalry. Many others think that traditional fairy tales are too scary for most children. Should children be told fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White?
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