English Composition 1
Developing Effective Arguments with Claims, Evidence, and Warrants
There are three major elements to persuasive writing and argumentation: claims, evidence, and warrants. Each is explained below.
In a work of persuasive writing, the writer presents "claims," which are propositions that convey the writer's interpretations of or beliefs about something. Claims are not facts but rather conclusions that the writer draws from facts. The claims below convey interpretations of Henry David Thoreau's essay "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," a selection from Thoreau's Walden.
- Thoreau believed that preoccupation with insignificant events caused nineteenth-century Americans to overlook what is important in life.
- Thoreau felt that technology was the primary cause of distress for nineteenth-century Americans.
- Thoreau thought that we should follow the ways of nature to lead more fulfilling lives.
- Thoreau felt that each individual has the responsibility to understand and reject the "shams and delusions" that are too often accepted as truths.
- Thoreau demonstrated his misanthropy (hatred of human beings) in his essay and saw no choice but to abandon civilization.
Notice how we could argue over the truth of the statements presented above. This fact alone should help you determine if you are presenting a claim. A claim, by its very nature, includes the possibility of at least two different, sometimes opposing, points of view. After all, there would be no reason to argue for a belief or interpretation if the subject of the belief or interpretation provided for only one possible point of view.
I think that most of the claims listed above could be argued well with specific evidence from Thoreau's essay, but I would be a little suspicious of one of the claims and downright skeptical about another one. To me, Thoreau seems disturbed by the emphasis on technological "improvements" in his day, such as the telegraph and railroad, but does he really believe that technology is the "primary cause of distress"? Right now, I really don't know, so I would wait to see how well the writer could support this interpretation before I would make up my mind. I approach the last claim with more skepticism, the claim that "Thoreau demonstrated his misanthropy (hatred of human beings) in his essay and saw no choice but to abandon civilization." Right now, I don't see Thoreau as a misanthrope, but I would be open to reading this writer's interpretation, examining carefully the way the writer argues this claim.
As you come up with claims for your essays, make sure of two things:
- that the claims really do convey your interpretation and are not simply statement of fact (see below), and
- that the claims can be supported with specific evidence.
Evidence is also referred to as support or facts. Evidence is just that: facts. Unlike claims, facts are indisputable. You may have heard the redundant phrase "true facts." The phrase is redundant because all facts are true: that's what makes them facts.
Evidence is what you use in persuasive writing to support the claims that you present.
Is it true that, in "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," "Henry David Thoreau believed that preoccupation with insignificant events caused nineteenth-century Americans to overlook what is important in life"? The only way to find out is by examining the evidence. The evidence we should consider is easy to locate. We simply need to review Thoreau's essay and look for comments he makes that may support our claim. If we find such comments, these would be the facts we could use to support our interpretation.
Again, the evidence we use to argue such a claim falls under the category of "facts," things that are true and therefore cannot be argued or disputed. The easy way to see if you are presenting a statement of fact as evidence is to ask yourself if the statement is indisputably true. Is the statement below a fact and therefore possibly good evidence for a claim about Thoreau's essay?
- Thoreau says, "Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain."
Of course, this is a statement of fact. It is undoubtedly true that Thoreau made this comment in "Where I Lived, and What I Live For," so the sentence above might be good evidence to support a claim about Thoreau's essay. If someone questions if the sentence is true, the skeptic simply needs to open the book and read the passage. (But the quotation marks around the words above should make clear that these are Thoreau's actual words.)
Now, whether or not Thoreau's statement is a claim or a fact, whether people do or do not know if they should "live like baboons or like men," is irrelevant. Thoreau, in fact, is making a claim, but this is Thoreau's claim, not the claim of the writer using Thoreau's words as evidence. The fact that Thoreau made the comment, though, is indisputable.
All good arguments must be supported by a strong foundation of facts. An essay filled with claims but no supporting evidence is not really an argument at all. It is instead a collection of the writer's interpretations or beliefs, and readers will have no reason to believe the interpretations or beliefs is they are not well supported with facts.
How many facts do you need to support each claim that you make in a persuasive essay? Good question. To some extent, the amount of evidence you need depends on the claim you are trying to support. However, I think it's a good idea to present at least three facts to support each claim. One fact is almost never enough, and it's difficult to build a strong argument with only two facts. After all, I might be able to take one or even two statements that Thoreau makes and argue for all kinds of different meanings, ignoring the possibility that these meanings may not be suggested anywhere else in all of Thoreau's writings. Would you like someone drawing conclusions about beliefs you might have based upon only one statement you made at some point in your life?
Three facts seems to me the point when readers will start to be convinced that you have a well-supported interpretation. If you use at least three facts to support your interpretation of Thoreau's ideas, you are saying that Thoreau makes at least three different statements that all suggest the same thing to you, at least three statements that support your interpretation of Thoreau's beliefs. Could we draw a conclusion about some belief you may have based upon three statement you have made that suggest this belief? Well, we are more likely to be accurate than if we rely on only one statement to draw our conclusion.
When you are using evidence to support your interpretation of a text, the evidence you take from the text itself can be presented in three different ways, outlined below.
- A Quotation: When you quote from the text, you copy the words exactly as they appear in the original, and you put quotation marks around the words you take from the text. Quotation marks tell readers that what they see in your essay is exactly what they would see in the original text.
- A Paraphrase: When you paraphrase, you put into your own words an idea that the writer conveys in the text. The paraphrase in itself should not convey any interpretation of the writer's ideas; instead, the paraphrase should be your own way of stating the exact idea that the writer conveys. In general, when you paraphrase, you use about the same number of words to convey the idea that the writer uses in the text. You should not put quotation marks around words you paraphrase, but you should make sure that you are conveying the same meaning that the writer conveys and that you really are using your own words to convey the idea.
- A Summary: When you summarize, you use considerably fewer words to convey a writer's ideas. A writer might make a good point that you could use as evidence to support your interpretation of the text, but the writer might develop this idea over several paragraphs. You would not want to bring such a long quotation into your essay, nor would you probably want to devote a large section of your essay to paraphrasing everything that the writer says. Instead, you could reread the information from the text carefully and then summarize the writer's points, perhaps using only a few sentences to convey an idea that the writer develops in a page or more. Of course, you need to make sure that your summary is accurate, that it really does convey concisely the points that the writer develops. When you summarize, you should not put quotation marks around your own words.
In general, writers will use a combination of quotations, paraphrases, and summaries when developing an interpretation of a text. Again, only words copies exactly from the original should go in quotation marks in your essay. In some cases, you might use paraphrases and summarizes to put the writer's ideas into your own words, but you might include a few key words or phrases from the original as part of your paraphrase or summary. If this is the case, you need to make sure that those key words and phrases from the original are in quotation marks.
Simply put, a warrant is the logical connection between a claim and a supporting fact. Sometimes, the logical connection, the way in which a fact logically supports a claim, will be clear, possibly so clear that no explanation from the writer is needed. More often, though, the writer needs to supply the warrant; in other words, the writer needs to explain how and why a particular piece of evidence is good support for a specific claim.
Look again at a claim and the one piece of supporting evidence for that claim I have mentioned so far as I discussed Thoreau's essay:
Henry David Thoreau believed that preoccupation with insignificant events caused nineteenth-century Americans to overlook what is important in life.
Thoreau says, "Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain."
These two sentences could be the beginning of a paragraph. If so, what should my next sentence be? I suppose I could go on to present a second and then a third piece of supporting evidence for my claim, but am I sure that readers will be able to understand how the quotation I use is logically supporting my claim? I can assume that my readers are intelligent, so maybe they could figure out the connection, but I also should realize that, as the writer, it is my job to make sure everything in my essay is clear to readers. Therefore, I probably should supply some explanation as to how this quotation is supporting the claim, so my next sentence could be the following:
The apparent preoccupation with external events, with the commerce and business of everyday life, may cause people to focus on what they are doing and not to look inward to examine how they are living.
As I wrote this warrant, I looked at two things: the claim I am making and the piece of evidence I am using to support that claim. In fact, my eyes were darting back and forth between the two statements as I was writing the warrant. With the warrant, I try to bring together the claim and evidence, demonstrating to readers how and why the evidence logically supports the claim. In this case, I have even used in my warrant a few words from the claim and from the evidence to help clarify the relationship. In the warrant, I use the word "preoccupied," recalling my claim, and the word "commerce," recalling the evidence. Notice as well that the phrase "how [people] are living" from my warrant recalls an important phrase from my claim, "what is important in life," and an important phrase from my evidence, "'whether we should live like baboons or like men." With the warrant, I should not simply paraphrase the claim or the evidence but instead demonstrate how the evidence supports the claim.
After I add this warrant to my slowly developing paragraph, I am then ready for the next sentence. Most likely, the next sentence will use another piece of supporting evidence from Thoreau's essay, followed by my explanation of how this evidence supports the claim. I will continue this pattern until I feel that I have established a strong argument for my claim.
Once I am finished with the paragraph, I am then ready to move on to the next paragraph. Most likely, I will repeat this same pattern with a different claim, but one related to my first claim. I will begin the body paragraph with a claim, followed by more supporting evidence and more explanation of how each piece of evidence supports my claim for that paragraph.