Analyzing Support

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When we ask our students to read and analyze arguments, we may ask them to locate the one sentence that best sums up the claim being made in the reading. When there is not a single sentence that does so, we can ask them to try to sum up what they think the claim is in one sentence. It is useful to point out that in a longer piece of writing, there may be claims within that claim that are developed in a paragraph or a part of the larger piece. A topic sentence may serve as the claim that an individual paragraph is making. All of these smaller claims, which may also serve as topic sentences, work together to support the larger claim of the whole piece.

Providing support for any claim is crucial to the success of an argument. Our students need to be able to identify the different types of support offered in support of claims. When it is their turn to write an argument, they can check through the types of support to determine if they have used all available means of support for their particular topic.

Logos, or a logical appeal, generally depends on inductive or deductive reasoning or the relationship between specifics and generalizations. Many arguments require the support of specific examples to convince a reader of the truth of a claim. For a short in-class assignment, you can ask students to find an article that uses logos appeals as examples and bring them to class for further discussion about how this appeal is used. Then, have students write a paragraph in which they support the claim using information from the article as their support.    

Here’s another short exercise you can use to have students consider the link between claim and support. Display the results of a survey,  presented in a graph or chart form (you may have to remove the headline or summarizing statements).  Next, ask students to write a topic sentence they could support using the information in the survey. Then instruct students to actually use the information in the survey to write a paragraph supporting their topic sentence. It is important to note that usually a variety of different topic sentences could be supported with a graphic that is rich in data.

Pathos, or emotional appeal, maybe a bit more difficult to pinpoint but can also be crucial to the success of an argument, depending on the topic. It may be easy to argue that new laws that restrict voter access are being passed, a claim of fact. It may take an additional emotional appeal to argue that they should not be, a claim of policy. The emotional appeal can come from explaining the effects these restrictions will have on individual Americans.

One article that appears in both Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument that illustrates the emotional appeal well is “An Unjust Sacrifice” by Father Robert A. Sirico. This article is based on a true case in which a judge had ordered that eight-week-old conjoined twins be separated. If they were not separated, both twins would inevitably die. The surgery to separate them would mean that the weaker of the twins would not survive, but the stronger one would. The matter was in court because the parents were not willing to sacrifice one of their children even if it was the only way for the other to survive. Sirico, a Catholic priest, defends the parents’ point of view.

The headlines are full of stories that illustrate the relationship between claim and support. The arguments that should be viewed with skepticism are those that provide little or no support for the claim—or that depend on faulty information. Articles on these controversial issues can complement the examples provided in the textbook and keep the study of argument up to date.

"Scales of Justice Law Dictionary Gavel USA Flag"  by Allen Allen is licensed under CC BY 2.0

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.