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Analyzing an Argumentative Essay

Analyzing an Argumentative Essay

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson teaches strategies for analyzing argumentative essays.

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Source: Locket,Dee.“Green Day Will Likely Go in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Next Year. They Deserve It.” Slate. Accessed 10/14/14., Anonymous. Photoshopped Cover Girl for the NFL image:

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

What are we going to learn today? We're going to learn about arguments, and how to analyze them. Then we'll practice on a couple examples.

We encounter arguments and argumentative writing all over the place, not just in college classrooms, but also in discussions and debates in general, and in many areas outside of the academic context. We encounter argumentative writing in politics, both around issues, and from politicians running for office or proposing legislation. And we encounter it from pundits commenting on the candidates and the issues.

We encounter arguments every day in the form of advertisements, which are always using persuasive techniques to make their case for why people should buy their products. Argumentative writing is also part of the professional life, where people often write proposals or project plans that make the case for a certain course of action, or a particular perspective on data, or otherwise argue for or against the merits of a specific position or action.

We encounter arguments in media such as television, movies, and songs, which often subtly or directly endorse certain perspectives, or ways of understanding the world. One of the more valuable parts of rhetorical awareness and engaged reading strategies is that they can be applied to so many aspects of modern life. It's valuable to be able to analyze all kinds of arguments, because if people or organizations are trying to convince you of something, whether they're politicians, pundits, advertisers, or business associates, it behooves you to be able to first, recognized that it's an argument, second, break down the argument in order to understand its strengths and weaknesses, and finally, to make an intelligent decision on how to respond to it.

For example, the last time I turned on my car's radio I was immediately presented with three arguments. The first was an ad for the public radio station, thanking those who supported their last fundraising drive, and reminding everyone how they're funded by listeners like you. This argument, while technically only making claims about where they get their funding, is also making the implicit claims that funding a public radio station is good, and that people just like me do it all the time. We could see where the rest of the argument comes in, right?

The second argument I heard came after that commercial, as the radio played a song by a small band called The Devil Makes Three. Their song, "All Hail," makes several explicit, then additional implicit arguments about just what's wrong with our society-- everything from drug use to capitalism run rampant.

And once the song ended, perhaps the most explicit example of an argument came on. It's election season, and a group calling themselves the Concerned Veterans of my home state paid for a spot announcing that one senator who's running for reelection, having supported Obamacare during the last state wide adoption vote, shouldn't be trusted not to, in the ad's words, force Obamacare on all of us. Their argument was not just that the candidate shouldn't be reelected, but that the Affordable Care Act is a bad thing, and that any politician supporting it shouldn't be elected, or reelected.

These three arguments, which I encountered during the time it took me to drive to the grocery store, all had their own motives and purposes. But since I was paying attention-- enough to remember them when prompted to think about arguments, at least-- I didn't just swallow what they were telling me. I made up my own mind about each.

Being an engaged reader, or as we've just seen, an engaged listener, and thinking about arguments as part of a conversation, one that we can talk back to with critical thinking, is important for life, in and out of school. Taking notes and using techniques like SQ3R, or scan, question, read, recite, review, will help make sure you get as much as you can out of any argument, whether you're planning to use it as a source or not.

Good arguments flow in such a way that often readers will not notice what goes into them. So it's important to break any argument, no matter how smooth or convincing it is, into its component pieces so you can recognize its techniques and strategies. In particular, there are a few things we should be looking for.

When reading an argumentative text, ask what its primary argument is, and how you can tell. Then look for the primary pieces of support, including any evidence and rhetorical appeals that the author uses.

We should also ask what the author's purpose seems to be in making the argument. What does he or she want us to know, or do? We should ask ourselves if the author seems credible or not, and why we think that. Does the author seem to have behaved ethically, when forming this argument?

There are also techniques we can use-- that is, things we can do to break an argument down effectively. We should find and point out the thesis. In written texts, highlight or underline it. For others, put it into a sentence. Then we can summarize the argument in our own words, and think about whether we agree or disagree with it, or perhaps something in between.

We can analyze the author's evidence, and see how, or to what degree it supports the thesis, and if it seems like it's credible, and being used honestly or not. Then it's a good idea to take a look at the rhetorical appeals being used, what kinds are used, and where in the text. Are they all effective, and ethical, especially considering pathos or emotional appeals?

Pay special attention to the conclusion, what technique is used there, and how effective it is. Also, after looking at the text's ending again, do you feel like the argument's point and purpose is clear to you?

We should also take a moment to examine that argument's structure, organization, and flow. A good strategy can be to summarize the argument piece by piece, in your own words, because doing this will help you get a better sense of the big picture overview of the argument, and how it's being made. Ask whether the structure is effective, and if not, how you might have done a better job.

And finally, take a moment to consider the author's style, tone, syntax, and word choices. Are they effective for you, personally? And for whatever you perceive to be the intended audience, how would they react? How does all this affect your perception of the argument as a whole?

These practices and questions, they're a lot to go through, but performing these on an argument that interests you, or that you're considering using for your own argumentative purposes, will help you get a deeper, more critical understanding of not only what its arguing, but how. Let's take a look at a couple different arguments, and practice performing this kind of analysis on them.

The first we'll consider is an article published online at, titled "Green Day Will Likely Go in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Next Year. They Deserve It," by Dee Lockett. I should state here that we aren't using this as an example of our own argumentation, but simply as an example of the kinds of arguments you can find online. Anyway, the thesis of this argument seems to be as follows. Those surprised that Green Day is eligible already-- Rock Hall rules state that an artist becomes eligible 25 years after the release of their first record-- should check out their first two albums, 1990's 39/Smooth, and 1992's Kerplunk, which are about as good as anything you'll find on Dookie.

The argument is essentially that Green Day created pop punk, and thereby brought punk to the masses. The primary forms of support include commentary and critical analysis of Green Day's albums, quotes from rock critics and other industry experts, information about the music history that led up to Green Day, and what they help build. These elements balance logos and ethos, or appeals to logic and credibility. There's also a subtle appeal to pathos, with a slight nostalgia inducing twinge of such sentences as, "their fast fame, coupled with Kurt Cobain's 1995 suicide, symbolized a changing of the guard in rock."

The author's purpose seems to have been to persuade the reader that Green Day's admission to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is defensible. From what I can tell, the author seems to be credible. She's a culture journalist, meaning that she professionally writes and researches about pop culture, including music. She also cites other experts, and makes a compelling case.

The one piece of criticism I have this argument comes from the fact that the author lumps Green Day alongside the grunge rockers, giving the impression that Green Day was a part of this mini-movement in rock. This move is somewhat disingenuous, banking on the revered nature of grunge to elevate Green Day by association. One could also question the premise being poppy and selling lots of records equates to being a great band, but it is indisputable that these attributes are favored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is, after all the subject being argued about.

The second argument we're going to break down isn't a written text, but an image. And just like the last argument we looked at, this image isn't mine, just an example of the many visual arguments were likely to encounter. Anyway, here's a version of it. The original I found at Though as for the author, it's hard to tell, since this image, and its noticeably feminist critique, has been shared widely over social media.

The thesis of this text's argument, as I'd put it, is that the NFL tries to pretty up domestic violence in its ranks, but it can't hide it forever. As with many images, the appeal that hits first is that of pathos. By seeing a beautiful, made up football fan with a half closed black eye, the viewer is compelled to feel a combination of empathy with the woman, an irony at the manipulated image. Underneath the initial pathos, however, we see an appeal to logos, through an insistence on the truth of domestic violence, and the problem of covering it up among football players, coaches, and staff in the NFL.

The purpose of this image seems to be to call attention to the NFL's hypocrisy, mishandling of the Ray Rice domestic abuse case, and other cases of abuse and rape for members of the NFL. This image is participating in a current conversation regarding the treatment of women in America.

As far as credibility goes, it's hard to tell with an argument like this. On one hand, the image is credible because it's effective. It makes its case quickly and unequivocally. On the other hand, because it relies on irony and emotion, rather than reasoned evidence, it could be considered less credible than some sources.

In responding to this image, we should consider whether it's manipulative, and if so, is it manipulative to a problematic degree? In a case such as this, does the importance of the message trump reasoned debates? Further, while it's compelling, is it effective in terms of bringing about change, or calling attention to the issue, or is it just a form of dark or sarcastic humor?

Lastly, as an image we have to consider the use of visual elements. The model's happy, expectant expression becomes disturbing in the modified image, as it suggests her being forced to pretend to a happiness she doesn't feel. But the text of the image, "Get your game face on," is doubly ironic, suggesting that your game face is the make up the woman uses to hide domestic abuse, and, simultaneously, that a battered face is a woman's game face, as far as the NFL is concerned.

What have we learned today? We learned about arguments, and how to analyze them, and then practiced doing so on a couple of very different texts. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.