Much of our research and writing involves crafting and analyzing complex arguments. It’s a real skill to be able to pick out logical errors or hidden assumptions. On this page we’ll teach you how to split every argument into its components parts.
Claim, Evidence, Warrant
The classic approach to dissecting arguments was developed by the British philosopher Stephen Toulmin. It’s called the Toulmin Method. For our purposes, we’ll focus on three key aspects of any argument:
- The Claim (or conclusion): a statement of a point you want to argue.
- The Evidence (or facts, reasons, grounds): the points that back up your claim.
- The Warrant (or assumption): the logic that ties together the claim and the evidence.
The warrant is probably the trickiest part. Think of it as a general assumption that often remains implicit and is not spelled out.
Let’s look at an example:
Claim: Bullying is a massive problem at our school.
Evidence: For one thing, the walls at the back of the school are sprayed full of graffiti.
Warrant: Graffiti is a sign of bullying.
In this case we’ve assumed that bullying and graffiti are somehow connected. The supposed link is spelled out in the warrant. Often, of course, the warrant is not really warranted and is something we can contest.
Here’s another example:
Claim: Our school should really have a pub.
Evidence: How can students be expected to be creative without having a beer or two?
Warrant: When students drink beer in a pub they will be more creative in school.
Again, the assumption is suspect. When we engage in debate or analyze other people’s arguments, it’s critical to drill down to the level of the warrant. Otherwise you’ll never get to the core of the issue.
Let’s finish with one more example–this time with two possible warrants:
Claim: Very few French people use bicycles to commute to work.
Evidence: French people tend to associate riding a bike with racing (e.g., in the Tour de France).
Specific warrant: When people associate biking with sport they are not likely to use bikes as a regular means of transportation.
Abstract warrant: A prejudice about a habit may limit adaptation to new circumstances.
You can see that one warrant may lead to another warrants. After all, our ideas are often based on a complex network of assumptions.
Different readers make different assumptions. For instance, if you’re writing for a secular audience, it does not make sense to rely exclusively on the authority of a religious text. Consider the following argument:
We should all be willing to forgive our enemies. After all, the Bible tells us to turn the other cheek.
Implied is the idea that everyone should listen to the Bible. It would be more effective to rephrase the argument and indicate that the biblical reference is not to be interpreted as evidence but as an illustration of what the claim entails:
We should all be willing to forgive our enemies. As Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Such a revision makes the passage more neutral, though one might still have to add more proof to convince a secular audience that forgiveness is indeed a good thing.
In short, always consider whether the warrants implicit in your arguments will be shared by your audience.
Exercise 1: Hidden Assumptions
For the following exercise, please study the following passages. Then write down the warrant (the implicit general assumption) that ties together the claim and the evidence. Once you’re done, check the answers section below. Note: sometimes multiple warrants are possible, so don’t be alarmed if your answer is different!
1. Rates of tuberculosis are way up among the Inuit in Canada. One reason is that, compared to the rest of the Canadian population, more Inuit live in close quarters in social housing.
2. The American news media doesn’t abide by proper journalistic standards. Fox News, for instance, is obviously pro-Republican, whereas the New York Times clearly favours the Democrats.
3. The Chinese policy of monitoring the “social credit” of its citizens is totalitarian. Under the plan, the Communist regime will use millions of CCTV cameras to track everything citizens do, from buying groceries to going on vacations. Then, based on a person’s behaviour (and party loyalty), the government will assign a social credit score. People with high scores will receive special privileges and benefits (e.g., promotions, discount fares), whereas those who score lower may be punished (e.g., banned from domestic or international flights).
4. Thinking of going on a holiday? You should visit Cuba this winter. I hear the beaches are beautiful.
5. I think charging interest on a loan is wrong. The Quran expressly forbids the practice.
Exercise 1: Answers
1. Warrant: Tuberculosis spreads more quickly when people live in close proximity.
2. Warrant: Journalistic standards should prevent news media from taking sides on political issues.
3. Warrant: when a government tracks a person’s personal behaviour, it acts in a totalitarian fashion.
4. Warrant: when you’re going on a holiday in winter, the best place to go is to a beautiful beach.
5. Warrant: The Quran is the ultimate moral authority. When the Quran forbids something, this rule should apply to everyone.
To learn more about working with claims, evidence, and warrants, we recommend checking out The Craft of Research, 4th ed. (by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and others), an excellent introduction to the art of academic writing.