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What are arguments?

In the previous article, we discussed what statements are. Statements are the kind of sentences that can be true or false. When someone is trying to persuade you to believe something, they will express this as a statement.

But how do you know if what they are trying to persuade you of is true or false? Unless they just want you to take their word for it without further discussion—and you probably shouldn’t—they will give you reasons in support of their views. Those reasons will also be expressed as statements. Together, all those statements form what we call an argument. This course is all about developing skills to evaluate whether arguments are good or bad. We will talk about good and bad arguments later. Before that, we need to be clear on what arguments are, and how to recognise them.

  • Definition: An argument is a group of statements some of which, the premises, are offered in support of another statement, the conclusion.

You can think of the premises of an argument as reasons that are given in support of a view, which is expressed in the conclusion of the argument.

Let’s see a very simple example of an argument:

Stan was driving his truck over the speed limit. He had no excuse for driving over the speed limit. Furthermore, he was intoxicated. Therefore, Stan was breaking the law.

We can easily isolate the conclusion:

  • Stan was breaking the law.

Notice that we do not include the word ‘therefore’ when we state the conclusion. The word ‘therefore’ is not part of the statement that forms the conclusion.

All other statements are premises. We have:

  • Stan was driving his truck over the speed limit.
  • Stan had no excuse for driving over the speed limit.
  • Stan was intoxicated.

The word ‘therefore’ is what we call a conclusion indicator. It is very common to use a conclusion indicator to stress the part of an argument that is being argued for. Arguments can also have premise indicators. Conclusion and premise indicators are words that are used to make clear which statements are premises and which statements are conclusions in arguments. Here’s a list of the most common ones.

Conclusion indicators Premise indicators
Therefore Because
Thus Since
Hence Supposing that
Consequently Assuming that
Ergo Given that

Indicator words are not always present in arguments. You may have conclusions that are not accompanied by conclusion indicators. But typically, the rule of thumb is that if you have a conclusion indicator, then the statement to which it is attached is the conclusion of the argument. And likewise with premises.

When arguments are given to you in the wild, they’re not always presented in such a clear way. We will show you lots of examples of arguments, and you will see that they quite often look very messy. This means that you will have to do some work to identify the conclusion and the premises. And this is generally far from easy. Because of that, we will represent arguments always in the same format, which we call the standard form of an argument.

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This article is from the free online course:

Logical and Critical Thinking

The University of Auckland

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