The Basic Principle

In a Nutshell

At the heart of every argument is its claim—what you want readers to do or think. Your argument is only as valuable as its claim. If your claim is irrelevant to anything readers care about, few will want to read your argument supporting it. If your claim seems obvious, readers will wonder why you bother to argue for it. If your claim cannot be settled by appealing to evidence, some readers may be interested in your opinion, but few will have reason to engage your argument.

Effective claims have three qualities:

  • They address important, relevant problems. Readers will think that the claim might help them address a problem they care about.
  • They are contestable. That is, readers will wonder whether the claim is true.
  • They are debatable. That is, readers will think that the claim can be proved or disproved.

In a college-level paper, a significant claim answers a question that readers care about; it leads readers to think not, That’s obvious or I already knew that, but Oh, you’ll have to prove that; and it raises the kinds of issues that can be settled by factual evidence.

The Principle

Readers will judge your claim—and your argument—in two ways: (1) Does it answer a significant question or solve a significant problem? and (2) Have you made a compelling case to support it?

You will not be able to judge the quality of your claim until you have a fairly complete idea of the problem it addresses and the argument for it—which means you may not be able to make a final judgment until you have completed most of your draft. But you can test your claim before you start drafting by looking for these four criteria. The first one indicates whether you can expect readers to care enough to consider your claim:

  • Does it address an important, relevant problem?

The next two indicate whether readers will think that they need to see an argument for your claim:

  • Is it contestable?
  • Is it debatable?

The fourth indicates whether a claim will be strong enough to organize a supporting argument:

  • Is it conceptually rich?

Does your claim address an important, relevant problem?
The world is full of answers to things we do not know, but no one has the time to learn all of them. So readers want to know why your claim and its argument should matter enough for them to learn more about it. If your readers do not care about your question, they won’t care about its answer. The one response to your claim that you cannot afford is not "I disagree" but "What difference does it make?" If your readers cannot see how your claim addresses not only a subject that interests them but also a specific question that they want answered, it won’t matter how well the rest of your argument is written, because they won’t care enough to read it.

Suppose, for example, that an expectant mother sees an article in a parenting magazine entitled “The Hidden Danger Lurking in Sippy Cups and Baby Bottles.” That’s a promising title that seems to raise an important issue for someone who will soon be caring for a newborn: What’s the hidden danger to my baby and how can I avoid it? But the claim of the article, stated right up front, is this:

BPA is an endocrine disruptor that poses a significant threat to public health.

Although we all should care about public health, the threats to it are far too numerous for most of us to learn—much less do something—about them. That’s for the scientists and government officials whose job it is to study and deal with these problems. A mother might guess that BPA is the hidden threat mentioned in the title, but this claim has no clear connection to anything she cares about at the moment.

Her response would be very different if instead she found this claim:

Many baby bottles, sippy cups, and infant toys include dangerous levels of BPA, an endocrine disruptor that poses a significant threat to infants and young children. Manufacturers do not indicate which products include BPA, but parents can find that information on a number of web sites.

This claim gives a parent much more reason to care about both the claim and its supporting argument because it shows how the claim is connected to a problem that matters to her.

Is your claim contestable?
Readers will care about a claim that addresses a problem important to them, but they won’t care much about its supporting argument if they think that the claim is obvious. If no reasonable person would disagree with or even doubt your claim, then readers won’t care about how you prove it. You want a claim that will cause readers to think not "Of course that’s true" but "You’ll have to show me that’s true."

Consider, for instance, these four claims about the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

  1. This paper will explore several prominent views concerning the second amendment.
  2. The right to bear arms is covered in the second amendment.
  3. The second amendment does not ban all gun regulations.
  4. The second amendment guarantees U.S. citizens the right to own any weapons they choose.

Two are contestable—and so will cause readers to want to see their support—and two are not. The best way to test this is to add not to turn each one into its opposite: if no reader would believe the opposite, then the claim is not sufficiently contestable.

1*) This paper will not explore several prominent views concerning the second amendment.

Unless the writer does not know what his own paper talks about, no reader would respond to claim (1) by asserting claim (1*). That your paper addresses some issue is never a claim strong enough to sustain a whole paper.

2*) The right to bear arms is not covered in the second amendment.

No one who knows anything about the Constitution would assert claim (2*); therefore, claim (2) is too obviously true to be worth supporting with an argument.

3*) The second amendment does ban all gun regulations.

Both claim (3) and claim (3*) would find many adherents; therefore, any writer asserting claim (3) must support it with an argument.

4*) The second amendment does not guarantee U.S. citizens the right to own any weapons they choose.

Here, most people would accept the negative version, claim (4*); therefore, any writer asserting claim (4) must support it with an argument.

Is your claim debatable?
There are many matters that are contestable, but that are unlikely ever to be settled by argument. If you believe in ghosts, you are not likely to convince anyone who doesn’t by offering reasons and evidence to support your view. Nor are you likely to convince others to share your mere preferences, especially if you cannot offer shared criteria for preferring one thing over another.

For example, you can claim that:

The Beatles are better than the Rolling Stones.

Some people might care which you think is better (though most would not), and some of them might contest that claim. They may even be interested in your reasons for holding that view. But you are unlikely to convince any fan of the Rolling Stones that they are wrong in their preference: there simply aren’t any facts to support your opinion. We can share and even explain our preferences and opinions, but they are not matters for argument.

On the other hand, you could make another kind of claim that is debatable:

The Beatles were more influential than the Rolling Stones, because they brought more new instruments and sounds into rock and roll and because their social statements had a greater effect on American and British culture.

This claim is based on an issue—the degree of influence—that can be decided by appealing to factual evidence. It also offers two specific criteria for deciding which facts are relevant to the question. You can compare the instrumentation used by both groups and you can compare the effects of their social statements. That won’t settle the matter: someone else might think that you need different criteria, such as the number of bands that imitated the two groups. But that’s just the kind of issue that arguments help us address and, we hope, eventually settle.

Claims that are contestable and debatable give you the best chance to engage the intellectual interests of readers because they can see that your argument is based on facts, not opinions.

Is your claim conceptually rich?
If your claim is significant, contestable, and debatable, it will serve your argument well. But your claim is more than the centerpiece of your argument; it is also the centerpiece of your paper, its main point. And in that role, your main point must not only state a significant claim but also give readers the concepts they will need to organize their understanding of the overall argument.

Consider this statement of a claim:

Moral judgments are irrational.

Many people think that the question of the nature of morality is important, so the claim is significant. Many would disagree with or doubt this claim, so it is contestable. And new psychological research has turned up many new facts that bear on this question, so it is debatable. But as an organizing principle for a paper, it is not specific enough. It presents only two very general concepts—morality and rationality—for you to develop in your paper and your readers to use to organize what they read. To manage a complex argument, both writers and readers need more and more specific organizing concepts.

You can add such concepts by expanding your statement of the claim in three ways:

  • Replace a general term with more specific ones:

    Irrational: based as much on sentiment and emotion as on rational principles.

    Moral judgments are based as much on sentiment and emotion as on rational principles.

  • Add an acknowledgement of an alternative position:
    Many people think of morality as a matter of following rules, but moral judgments are based as much on sentiment and emotion as on rules and rational principles.

  • Add important reasons:
    Many people think of morality as a matter of following rules, but new research shows that many moral judgments are made instantaneously and instinctively, which suggests that morality is based as much on sentiment and emotion as on rules and rational principles.

Now you begin writing with at least six concepts you can use as organizing themes—moral judgments, instinct, sentiment, emotion, rules, and rational principles. More importantly, when you state this claim up front in your introduction, you prepare readers to look for these concepts to organize their understanding of your paper. To be sure, that sentence has grown to be a little ungainly. But when you add it to your paper, you can shape it up, even make it more than one sentence.