Arguments may support an opinion by questioning the truth or the strength of opposing evidence
CHARACTERISTICS OF WRITTEN ARGUMENT
An argument may be defined as an opinion with some supporting evidence. Academic writers frequently need to argue, for example in answering “analytic” essay questions (see 94. Essay Instruction Words), or in deriving conclusions from research findings. Written arguments are common in a business context too, for such purposes as defining company policy or requesting funding for a project.
Each of the two parts of an argument is associated with a variety of characteristic words and structures, no particular one of which is essential. Language that can be used for stating opinions is considered in depth elsewhere within these pages in the post 107. The Language of Opinions. Here it is the language of supporting information that I wish to concentrate on.
There are at least three main types of support for an opinion: simple evidence, complex evidence, and criticism of opposing evidence. Language associated with the first two are the topic of the post before this (167. Ways of Arguing 1). The following sections present and discuss two major ways to criticise evidence supporting an opinion opposite to your own.
LANGUAGE FOR CRITICISING OPPOSING EVIDENCE
Exposing a problem in the evidence for an opposing opinion can be a very persuasive way of arguing. Two common ways of criticising evidence are as follows:
In this approach, doubt is expressed about the factuality of a supporting statement. By itself this is not proof that one’s own opinion is correct, but it strongly implies that it is. Here is an example of an argument involving this kind of criticism. The evidence under attack is underlined.
(a) Critics of modern soccer often argue that players are paid too much. Salaries, they say, are not proportionate to the game’s role in society. Yet much of this concern is misplaced. The high player salaries are no more unjustified than the earnings of other well-paid sports personalities such as tennis players. There is, moreover, no proof that providing enjoyment to millions of people is any less a contribution to society than performing more obviously worthy services such as running a government.
The writer is here arguing that soccer players’ high salaries are justified. S/he does not agree that they are too high for soccer’s role in society. The reasons are that other sports stars earn similarly high salaries, and that the level of soccer’s importance in society is a matter of opinion.
This kind of argument has some characteristic language. First, the opinion that is being disagreed with must be linked with other people than the writer. In (e) this is done with critics. For other possibilities, see 22. Multiple Speakers in a Text. Next, after the opinion and introducing the questioning there must be a word – normally a conjunction or connector – meaning “but” (but, yet, however, nevertheless, even so etc.). Finally, there is normally a criticism expression like misplaced. For more examples, see 13. Hidden Negatives and 152. Agreeing and Disagreeing in Formal Contexts.
Here is another example of this kind of argument. Readers are invited to identify the above-described key elements:
(b) Various research findings have been cited in support of a link between high-cholesterol foods and heart attacks. However, this link is questionable. There have been other research projects that have not confirmed a connection between diet and heart disease.
The first sentence here contains the opinion being criticised and, before it, simple evidence on which it is based (various research findings). All of this is attributed to other people by the passive form of the reporting verb have been cited. The criticism begins with however. The criticism word is questionable. The problem with the factuality of the evidence is said to be the suggestion that all research supports the same conclusion when in fact only some does.
In this kind of argument, evidence against the writer’s own opinion is accepted as factual, but is shown to be weaker than evidence for it. There are two different ways of indicating such weakness. In one, a numerical imbalance is highlighted: more points in support than against.
Arguments of this kind are often needed in academic essays, particularly those instructing the writer to discuss (see 94. Essay Instruction Words). A common approach is to list the two opposing sets of points separately, before providing an opinion based on whichever one is larger or “heavier”. The typical language will hence be that of listing different items in different sentences (see 122. Signpost Words in Multi-Sentence Lists). There will usually be a sentence introducing the list (ending in a full stop, not a colon) plus a need for a suitable link word at the start of each new point.
There are various possible ways of writing the introductory sentence, e.g.:
(c) Train travel has advantages and disadvantages.
(d) A case can be made both for and against train travel.
(e) There are arguments both for and against train travel.
The first evidence statement will usually need a signpost adverb like firstly or adjective like first. For some synonyms, see the above-mentioned post on multi-sentence listing. A particularly useful one for starting the points in favour of your own opinion is to begin with: it suggests that the list is long and strong.
Statements of subsequent evidence are typically introduced with “addition” connectors like moreover, furthermore and in addition, or adjectives like another. A change from supporting to opposing points or vice versa can be shown with however or on the other hand.
At the end, when the conclusion indicated by the mentioned evidence needs to be stated, it is possible to begin with a phrase like in conclusion, it can be concluded that, to sum up, in view of the above arguments or on the basis of the above. There should also be a statement of how/why the points support the opinion.
The other main way of making opposing evidence seem weaker than your own is by questioning its relative importance. The language for doing this is extensively analysed in the Guinlist post 51. Making Concessions with “May”. Here are two examples:
(f) Coal may be a cheap fuel but it harms the environment.
(g) Train travel should be preferred to driving whenever possible. It may be tiring, but it is kinder to the environment.
No opinion is actually stated in (f), but one is easily inferred: the writer thinks coal should not be used as a fuel. Both (f) and (g) signal the opposing point (underlined) with may and the writer’s own point with but. The very meaning of but suggests that what follows is a more important point, but a writer ought to back this up with some subsequent detail.
May and but are not the only words that can do what they do: the above-mentioned post lists numerous alternatives. Most imply that the inconvenient point has been made by other people, rather than having been thought of by the writer. They are hence agreement-showing – formal equivalents of the conversational You have a point, but … (see 152. Agreeing and Disagreeing in Formal Contexts). To avoid the suggestion of other people, one can replace both may and but with although (a conjunction that rarely allows a following but – see 64. Double Conjunctions).