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Topic vs. Argument in a Reading Passage

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  • 0:01 Topic vs. Argument
  • 1:19 Examples
  • 3:41 More About Argument
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.

Understanding the distinction between topic and argument is an important part of becoming a critical reader. Here's the difference, with examples. Also review how to identify the support for an argument in a passage.

Topic vs. Argument

Do you know the difference between the topic and the argument of a given passage? Learning how the distinction works can help you become a better reader, and it also really helps when you're answering questions on any kind of standardized test. So here's an overview.

The topic of a passage is what the passage is about. The argument of a passage is the author's point of view about the topic. The argument is sometimes also called the main claim or the thesis. The argument will be something debatable - if you can't argue the other side of the issue, it isn't an argument.

Passages on the same topic can make different arguments. For example, imagine three passages all on the topic of global warming:

  • Passage one argues that it does exist and is caused by human activities.
  • Passage two argues that it does exist, but is not caused by human activities.
  • Passage three argues that it doesn't exist at all.

Same topic; different arguments.

Many test questions require you to find the topic or the argument of a given passage or to identify points that the author makes in support of her argument. In this lesson, you'll get some practice telling the two apart, and then we'll look more closely at passage arguments, so you can ace those questions without a problem.

Examples

To really clarify the differences between topic and argument, let's look at an imaginary passage:

Pirates vs. Ninjas

'For ages, mankind has pondered the question of which is cooler: pirates or ninjas? In my opinion, ninjas are definitively superior. First, their hygiene is better since they actually bathe. Second, their costumes are much more intimidating and classically fashionable: naval fashion goes in and out of style, but black is always appropriate…'

What would you say is the topic of this passage? In other words, just fill in the blank: 'This passage is about…' If you said something like 'pirates versus ninjas' or 'pirates and ninjas,' you got it! The competition for cool points between pirates and ninjas is the topic of the passage.

Now, what's the argument of this passage? In other words, fill in the blank: 'In his discussion of pirates and ninjas, the author argues that…' If you said something like 'ninjas are cooler,' then you got it! The argument is the author's own point of view on the topic. It's something that another author might disagree with. In this case, you could probably imagine someone else arguing that pirates are actually cooler than ninjas. That's what makes this an argument, not just a fact.

Want to try another one?

The Value of Games

'Parents often tell their children to 'stop playing around' or 'get serious,' but in fact, games are a very valuable way to spend time. Games can help teach young children about social cooperation, following rules, and fairness, all lessons they will need later in life. Active games, like tag, can also help protect against childhood obesity, an increasingly serious problem in much of the world.'

What would you say is the topic of this passage? If you said something like 'games' or 'children's games,' then you got it right. Notice how the title gives you a huge clue about the topic. Now, how about the argument? What is the author's point of view about children's games?

The author's argument is that games are useful and not just a waste of time. You can see how this is different from the topic because the argument is expressing an opinion that someone else could argue against. Another author might argue that actually games are a complete waste of time and children would learn more by spending more time in school.

More About Argument

Just finding the argument of a passage is useful, but a lot of test questions take it one-step further. They don't just ask you to pin down the argument; they ask you to identify 'What kinds of information or evidence the author brings up in support of that argument?' In some ways, you could even think of the support as part of the argument since very few people will just state their main argument and leave it at that. In a real argument, that definitely wouldn't be convincing!

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