Writing Argumentative Essays
Classical argument has its origins among the ancient Greeks. In order to prove that a wrong or
injustice was done to them, Greek citizens had to appear before a tribunal of fellow citizens and
argue their case. This was a formal process in which the accuser and the accused tried to
establish their credibility, exchanged claims and counterclaims, and ended with a rhetorical
flourish. In the absence of compelling evidence, the more persuasive speaker often won the day.
Another kind of oral discourse using argument, the formal debate was considered a training
ground for males seeking public professions during the 19
-century, and debating societies are
still alive on the campuses of many North American universities (with female debaters welcome,
of course). Successful debaters are thought to exhibit life skills such as mental dexterity (quick
thinking), verbal acuity (repartee), and calm under pressure. In the classical Western tradition,
though, argument often went hand in hand with an "us versus them," "winner take all"
Today, argument can serve several purposes:
to settle an issue (i.e., win an argument)
to critique a viewpoint, position, text, etc.
to expose a problem or raise awareness of a problem
to consolidate an opinion
to reach a compromise.
Arguing to reach a compromise, in fact, often constitutes a more realistic purpose than arguing to
claim a victory. Thus, in her essay on a section of the Criminal Code that permits corporal
punishment "if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances," student
writer Danielle Gudgeon steers a middle ground between those who want the law upheld and
those who want it abolished. Her middle position makes it likely that an audience on both sides
will consider her points, making her argumentative goal more attainable:
Section 43 of the Criminal Code has a social utility for both teachers and parents, but it is an
old law which must be amended to reflect society’s progression. The addition of clear guidelines to
the law regarding the severity of discipline and the use of objects as weapons will create a distinction
between abuse and discipline. This will prevent subjectivity within the courts and discourage future
abuse, while affording parents the option of disciplining their children.
The kinds of evidence and the argumentative strategies you use will depend on your purpose
in arguing, your audience, and the topic itself. It is useful to look at three diverse forms that
written argument can take in the media in order to see how these various elements interact: the
letter to the editor, the review, and the editorial. Each has a different purpose, which is reflected
in its structure, voice, language, kinds of evidence, and typical reader/viewer. The letter to the
editor is the most subjective; there, writers can "have their say"; most published reviews reflect
the informed opinions of experts; the voice of the editorial writer is usually the most objective of