Argumentative essays have the primary function of discussing and evaluating opinions. In doing so they must present facts and ideas, and in this they contain aspects of description and exposition, but while in the mainly descriptive and expository essays we present established facts, in argumentative essays there is always an element of doubt, of potential controversy. Many argumentative essays have the intention of supporting a precise thesis, and of refuting an opposite thesis: they are called competitive or competitive. However, there are also argumentative essays in which we do not necessarily arrive at a conclusion that leads to choosing a thesis or another, but we reason about the pros and cons of each: we speak then of cooperative argumentation. In short, a text to be argumentative must contain arguments, not necessarily a thesis to defend: I can have a text that presents various arguments for and against various theses, without marrying any in the end (this could be a mature and responsible conclusion for kids who think about big and complex subjects), and it can legitimately be called argumentative text; vice versa, essays in which a thesis is vehemently supported but in a dogmatic way, without argument, cannot be considered argumentative essays.
Argumentative text therefore
An argumentative text therefore presents one or more theses and, for each of them, discusses the arguments for or against. Let us now look at the structure of the arguments, following a very widespread theoretical model, the one proposed by the philosopher Toulmin. In this model, a thesis, to be argued, is supported by a basis (or reason, or foundation), which is based on a guarantee or general rule, in turn motivated by a background of prior knowledge. Let’s look at an example relating to two possible theses: it is right that boys bring their cell phones to school, or not.
As you can see, the background of relevant knowledge is potentially very vast, and can relate to personal experiences, facts of which we have news, information found on school books. Authorities (a person considered intelligent and wise, experts in a sector) can also be cited, both because they support the thesis or the general rule, and because they provide background information considered to be particularly reliable.
The juxtaposition of your tables also clearly shows how each argument in favor of a thesis can become an objection to the opposite thesis. From a competitive perspective, in which one tries to make one thesis prevail over the other, the game consists in demonstrating that the argument in favor of the objection is fallacious (few bases, questionable rules, unreliable authorities) or that the damages presented by the objection are less than the advantages proposed by the thesis (it is very important to be reached for emergencies while the interruptions during the study give little discomfort).
The arrangement of the topics is of particular importance. First of all, one must decide whether to present the thesis (or the theses) immediately, following the arguments in favor and against, or to examine the various arguments first and then conclude in favor or against a thesis. The first strategy is certainly clearer and more explicit: the cards are immediately discovered with respect to where you want to go, then the reasoning is developed. The second strategy is more sophisticated and makes the argument appear a bit like a detective story, in which various clues are gradually given to arrive at a conclusion: more difficult to construct and to follow, but more refined and probably more effective on a persuasive plan, because the recipient is gradually led and convinced of the thesis.
Another decision to make regarding the organization of the text concerns the order in which to arrange the arguments more or less strong. It is first necessary to establish, in the phase of collecting ideas, which reasons in favor of a thesis are more convincing and which are less, because they are based on less reliable sources, because they concern marginal aspects, or because they are more subject to possible objections. We can start with strong arguments, to get straight to the point and not waste time on the recipient, or on the weaker ones, in a crescendo of considerable persuasive force; an effective order is also the so-called Nestorian order (from the leader Nestor who, according to the Iliad, ordered the Greek troops to be placed with the weakest in the center and the strongest on the sides), which first presents some strong arguments to give authority to the speech, then some weaker with possible objections, and concludes with other very strong, potentially decisive arguments, to give the recipient the impression of having followed a free reasoning, which takes into consideration every aspect, favorable and contrary, central or accessory, to then reach the desired conclusion.
These last considerations lead us to reflect on persuasive strategies, particularly important in competitive arguments, in which we want to convince someone of the validity of a thesis.
Persuasion, to work, must be delicate. The history of advertising teaches us this: at the beginning everybody screamed to support the goodness of their products, but when they realized that this annoyed consumers and above all gave them reasons to choose one product rather than another, it was began to use a different tone, more persuasive. The recipient must feel free to choose, he must convince himself that if he buys a certain car, or marries a particular thesis, it is not because someone has shouted at him incessantly ‘buy this’ or ‘choose that’, but because the choice is really his and personal . That is, persuasion must lead to conviction, and convictions are something that comes from within, not that it imposes itself from the outside. This is why a good strategy for presenting the topics is not similar to a steamroller, but tries to lead the recipient along a line of reasoning that he can hear as his own, with a non-predetermined outcome but which emerges as a personal conclusion, after oscillating (with a a certain feeling of freedom) between pros and cons, arguments in favor and objections to the contrary. Other ways to make a text more persuasive concern the form of the exhibition and the relationship that the broadcaster establishes with the recipient: a pleasant, interesting, well-constructed text, is without more effective, but also a text that presents the issuer in a sympathetic, or authoritative, or reassuring, or intelligent (always indirectly, not declaring ‘I am prepared and intelligent’) is more likely to convince the recipient. Finally, even if in the collection of ideas many arguments were found in favor of one’s thesis, it may be good to choose only the best ones, the most convincing ones, so as not to bore the recipient and not turn to potential objections.
The development of argumentative skills
The ability to produce good argumentative essays emerges belatedly and is never reached by many adolescents and adults. It is in fact particularly complex essays: it is necessary to reason on typically abstract subjects, to construct highly structured essays, to take the point of view of the recipient, following his way of thinking, his attitudes and prejudices and anticipating his objections. High decentralization and metacognition skills are therefore needed on the mechanisms underlying the reasoning and decision-making and on the effectiveness and aims of the text.
On a formal level, a good argumentative text does not necessarily require very sophisticated linguistic structures. At school we often talk about connectives, but these are certainly not the fulcrum of argumentation teaching, nor is it one of the most difficult aspects. When we know expressions as if, then, but, therefore, we can already build an excellent argumentative text. More specific connectives, however, as well as on the other hand, certainly add clarity and effectiveness to the text, but they are not, strictly speaking, indispensable. Furthermore, in general, connectives of general organization of the text, as in the first place, are not specific to argumentative essays, but are useful to indicate the internal scanning of any type of text.