Argument Essays

© Bill Stifler, ©1997, 2002

In one sense, every essay is an argument essay in that the writer is providing evidence in support of a thesis. However, writers generally see argument essays as essays that seek either a change in behavior or a re-orientation in thinking. Some argument essays offer reasons or evidence in favor of one option among several. Some argument essays debate options, offering pros and cons for each in an effort to show that one option is superior to the others. Other argument essays marshal evidence to persuade the reader to adopt a point of view or pattern of behavior contrary to the reader's normal thinking or behavior. Others present and evaluate evidence in order to reach what appears to be the best or most reasonable conclusion. Still others attempt to persuade by consensus, acknowledging the strengths of one point of view or pattern of behavior and then providing evidence to suggest that another point of view or pattern of behavior more successfully addresses the situation.

Argument essays are common to all disciplines, and students are exposed to arguments in their course reading, in their everyday lives, and in their professional careers.


Appeals to Reason

In general, there are three types of appeals in arguments (popularized by the Greek philosopher Aristotle). Logos, from which we get the English word "logic," refers to appeals of reason, common sense, general knowledge, and scientific research. Any of the expository modes (definition, cause/effect, comparison/contrast, and so on) can be used for rational appeals. Appeals to reason are considered the most important of all the means of persuasion. However, by themselves, appeals to reason often fail to be effective (Who in America doesn't know that smoking is unhealthy, and yet, despite that knowledge--and cigarette warning labels--many people not only continue to smoke, but new people continue to join the ranks of smokers).

Appeals to Emotion

Pathos (our English word "pathos," which means a feeling of pity or compassion, is derived from this Greek word), refers to various emotional appeals. The abuse of appeals to emotion has been so common that the term "rhetoric," which means "the art and science of speaking or writing effectively," is often used to mean "insincere speech or writing." Emotional appeals can be very powerful, but they work best in concert with rational appeals, and, in general, should follow rather than precede rational appeals. Emotional appeals can be especially effective in a conclusion. Because narration and description are expressive modes, these are often used to develop emotional appeals. The person who may not be convinced by a listing of the medical consequences of smoking may be convinced by a first person account from a victim suffering from lung or throat cancer as a consequence of smoking.

Appeals of Character

Ethos, from which we get the English word "ethic," refers to appeals of character. Ethical appeals are also ofen abused. One useful way of understanding ethical appeals is to see them, not as arguments a writer makes, but as arguments a writer is. In other words, arguing that a particular approach to a problem is the "right" or "ethical" thing to do, or is the "Christian" thing to do (which is both an appeal to ethics and an appeal to authority) is often ineffective. Writers have high ethical appeal when they show evidence of character: a sense of fairness, willingness to hear both sides of an issue, evidence of extensive research into all sides of the topic, command of language, and honesty. Bias, closed-mindedness, superficial understanding, poor grammar and spelling, lying, and plagiarism all indicate low or weak character and detract from the arguments being presented.


Fallacies are faulty arguments. Some faulty arguments are so common that they have been categorized since Greek and Roman times. A listing of various fallacies with explanations can be found at The Nikzor Project. In general, fallacies involve misuses of rational, emotional, and ethical appeals. Unfortunately, people being what they are, fallacies can be convincing to those who do not think through the conclusions drawn, those who are easily swayed by prejudice or stereotypes, those who are emotionally distraught, or those who are swayed by charismatic and powerful speakers and writers. However, just because an argument works does not justify its use. And, for those, who know better, or are wiser, or calmer, or more thoughtful, the use of fallacious arguments is abhorrent and suggests a writer of low character, inexperience, or incompetence.