Sunday, October 4, 2009

The language of argument in essay writing (Anatomy series part 5)

Dear Grammar Gangers,

I want to pick up on a question Andrea asked when she wrote: 'Is your case well supported?' and another that appeared on Susanna's mind-blowing mind-map, 'What is your argument'? Both of these points assume that 1. You have taken a position on an essay topic and 2. You are arguing your case throughout your essay. Of course, this is exactly what you need to do!

An essay presents a point of view formulated by critically assessing the information or ideas relevant to the essay topic, that is, an essay IS an argument. The word 'argument' does not have to be written anywhere in your essay for it to be an important part of your task. Your lecturers may assume that you know this and thus may not explain the importance of arguments to you in class.

Academic arguments are used for a range of purposes such as:
1. Supporting something we think has merit – a position, a point of view, a program, an object.
2. Persuading someone that something would be beneficial to do (or not to do) – a particular course of action.
3. Showing someone the problems or difficulties with something – a theory, an approach, a course of action.

An essay requires a thesis statement - this is your concise response to the essay questions which takes the form of an argumentative assertion that states the point of view or claim that the essay will go on to support.

Be aware though, that statements of fact are not thesis statements as they do not tell the reader what the author thinks about the topic. Have a look at the paragraphs below. Can you tell which is a series of facts and which contains a thesis statement?

The Black Death (otherwise known as the Bubonic Plague) first appeared in Europe in the 1340s. Spread by rodents and fleas. the infection is said to have 'carried off' a third of Europe's population. Plague causes fever and a painful swelling of the lymph glands called buboes. The disease also causes spots on the skin that are red at first and then turn black.

The Black Death of 1348 coincided with fundamental changes in the social framework of the later Middle Ages. However, the disease alone was not responsible for these changes. Rather, it is necessary to consider a number of economic, agricultural and health factors in assessing the transformation of late medieval society.

Topic sentences should clearly signal to your reader the main idea in the paragraph. In the body section of a good essay, you should be able to get a sense of the overall argument by reading only the topic sentences!

Don't forget though, that the argument should also form a cohesive whole so this means that the paragraphs need to be logically ordered and connections made between the points presented in those paragraphs.

As you write, you need to draw out the implications of the information you are including by explaining to the reader why you have used evidence and how it serves your argument. Have a look at the following essay extract and note how the student writer is using signposting language (e.g. this argument) and linking words to show what she is doing in her writing.

ESSAY TOPIC: Discuss the argument that it makes financial sense for employers to make the workplace safer so that they can reduce their payroll expenses and save money.

This argument also relies on the idea that companies use financial sense exclusively to make decisions about improving the work environment. However, this is not always the case. Companies look at other considerations such as the negative social ramifications of high on-job injuries. For example,Toyota spends large amounts of money improving its environment because, while its goal is to be profitable, it also prides itself on high employee morale and an almost perfectly safe work environment (Matsuki & Fewick 2002). Therefore, Toyota finds that it can do both, as by improving employee health and employee relations they are guaranteed a more motivated staff, and hence a more efficient staff. This guarantees more money for the business as well as more safety for the employees (Grieves et al. 2004).

Happy arguing!


Jose M. Blanco said...

Virginia, a question for you.

Do you teach students to place their thesis statement at the END of the first paragraph? Most high school and college essays seem to suggest such a placement, but several rhetorics seem a bit liberal and tell students that the thesis may be at the beginning of the essay (first sentence) or even IMPLIED(!!). I have my students place the thesis at the end of the first paragraph? Do you follow this practice?

Virginia Hussin said...

Dear Jose,
I teach students to place the thesis statement towards the end of the introduction (whether that's one or more paragraphs).

However, it's not at the very end because I then suggest that they give a brief outline of how they are going to answer the question.

My logic is this:
first- you give some background to the question
second- you state your argument (thesis statement)
third- you explain how you are going to answer the question (argue your case).

Having said that, I believe that when writers become more confident, they can vary their structure a lot more. I think it's better for the reader if the thesis is clear rather than being implied. Of course, the thesis itself may be hedged e. g. this essay will argue that the likely cause of the financial crisis was unregulated trading.

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