How to Recognize Statements that Strengthen or Weaken Arguments

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  • 0:32 The Elements of an Argument
  • 1:13 Strong Claims vs. Weak Claims
  • 3:10 Strong Reasons vs.…
  • 4:56 Strong Evidence vs.…
  • 7:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn how to recognize statements that strengthen or weaken arguments. We will pay special attention to identifying strong and weak claims, reasons, and evidence.

The Elements of an Argument

Arguments are everywhere. Someone is always trying to convince us of something. Part of our job as readers is to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of these arguments and figure out whether or not we should adopt the perspectives they present. This lesson will offer some tips about how to do just that.

Before we begin, though, let's review the basic elements of an argument. An argument, as we know, is a form of communication that tries to persuade its audience to adopt a particular position about a topic. Arguments have three main parts: a claim that states the position to be argued; reasons that logically explain why the claim should be accepted; and evidence that supports the reasons with facts, anecdotes, statistics, expert testimony, and examples. The statements a writer makes to offer a claim, reasons, and evidence can weaken or strengthen an argument. Let's see how this works.

Strong Claims vs. Weak Claims

To be strong and effective, a claim should be debatable, focused, and specific. In other words, it ought to be something that can be argued with reasons and evidence, and it ought to be narrow enough to properly support or prove in the space and format available.

Take a look at the following claim and determine whether it is strong or weak: The environment must be protected. This is a weak claim because it is not debatable. Everyone would agree that the environment must be protected, so there really isn't an argument here. Starting with a non-debatable claim weakens the argument from the get-go. A stronger claim might be something like this: Congress ought to allocate 25% of its annual budget to programs that will either preserve the environment or work to clean up environmental disasters. Now there's an argument that has some controversy in it!

Let's try one more example. In this case, the writer is preparing an argumentative essay. Is the following claim strong or weak? Slavery was the ultimate cause of the Civil War. Did you say weak? If so, you're right. This claim isn't focused and specific enough for the scope of an essay. Historians have been debating this in books of hundreds of pages for many years. The writer has bitten off more than he can chew. A stronger claim might look something like this: The men of the Second Minnesota Volunteer Infantry signed up for service out of patriotism rather than out of any desire to eliminate slavery. See how this claim is narrower and more focused? It could be easily debated within the confines of an essay.

Strong Reasons vs. Weak Reasons

Strong arguments have logical and clear reasons that directly support the claim. They answer the question, Why is this claim true?

Let's say a writer makes the claim that John Jones is the best candidate for the district's Senate seat. He offers the following reasons to support the claim. See if you can pick out which reasons are strong and which are weak.

  1. John Jones is a terrific baseball player.
  2. John Jones has many years of experience in politics.
  3. John Jones is a nice guy.
  4. John Jones is committed to improving his community and working for his constituents.

If you said that number two and number four were strong reasons, you are correct. They are logical; readers and voters will want to know about John Jones' political experience and dedication to his community and constituents. They are clear; readers understand the reasons with no questions left in their minds. They directly support the claim and answer the question of why John Jones is the best candidate.

How about reasons number one and number three? Both of these are weak. They do not logically, clearly, or directly support the claim of the argument. Who cares if John Jones is a terrific baseball player? What does that have to do with his race for Senate? How do baseball skills translate to being a good candidate for political office? What's more, John Jones may be a perfectly nice guy and a very poor senator.

Strong Evidence vs. Weak Evidence

A strong claim and strong reasons require strong evidence. Strong evidence is accurate, convincing, and relevant to the argument at hand. It comes from a credible source, and it truly supports the reason it is supposed to prove.

Let's look at some examples of strong and weak evidence. We'll continue to explore the claim that John Jones is the best candidate for the district's Senate seat. Recall that we have two strong reasons to support that claim:

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