The difference between an informative essay and an argumentative essay is the amount of, and focus on, information.  An informative essay has a thesis that is readily provable, by providing information that the reader just might not know.  An argumentative essay, however, may not be literally "provable."  If you try using a prevalence of a certain type of information that supports your point, your opponents will bring up information of their own that supports the opposite stance.  (Think of political elections -- both of the extreme polar stances on important issues that face us as a country can be proven by "facts."  Where you stand just depends on which facts you choose to believe.)

That reminds me of a line from the movie Hero.  Bernie LaPlante, a two-bit scumbag criminal, played by Dustin Hoffman, is getting ready to explain to his son how he really ended up being the hero who saved a whole plane-load of people from burning up in a plane crash.  Everyone in the world thinks the hero was a gentle, homeless Vietnam vet down on his luck, and no one would ever believe Bernie LaPlante would do such a thing because his life motto is "Don't stick your neck out."   

So Bernie begins by telling his son, "Life is crazy.  You think you know the truth, but really what it is is just bullshit.  Layer upon layer of bullshit.  You just pick what's your layer of bullshit."  In a way, argument is like identifying your own layer.

So how can you argue?  Keep in mind that "argue" here doesn't mean the kind of mindless bickering that children do.  It doesn’t mean that whoever yells the loudest wins.  Think of the word "argue" as also meaning "persuade."  Here it means making your point.

The Greeks wrote "essays" through their speeches.  Aristotle taught these three techniques for argument, or persuasion: ethos, logos, and pathos.  Now we have commercials that use these same techniques to persuade us to buy whatever is being sold.  Commercials make good illustrations of these techniques because they are, at most, a whole argument condensed into 60 seconds.  The argument technique, then, is more obvious in commercials than it would be in your essay.  However, in commercials, the argument's being condensed so drastically requires the viewers to make some assumptions, connections that are not clearly stated.  In your essay, you must make the connections clear.



Ethos is the word from which we get "ethics" but here it might be more accurately translated as "reputation," or "authority."  This is a favorite technique for advertising companies.  Kirstie Alley recommends Jenny Craig Weightloss System.  She works as ethos on several levels.  First, she's fairly famous.  People might recognize her from the work she did in Cheers and various movies.  It seems people trust the celebrities they can recognize more than they do the average person on the street.  Second, she actually knows what she's talking about.  She had gained so much weight that she starred in the movie Fat Actress.  Then she started losing weight through Jenny Craig's system.

The spokesperson's just being famous lends more weight to the argument.  That's how Al Gore can get away with making a documentary about the earth's environment.  In truth, he's not a scientist.  I am amazed at how many people think the information he provides in his documentary is entirely accurate, just because they recognize him and his name.  I would think that his being a politician, with a politician's tendency to slant things in a direction that's more convenient and beneficial to his career, would make people more cautious.  Sure, there are scientists who make statements in the documentary (this, of course, is to beef up the validity of the "facts") but like facts and statistics, anyone can pick and choose scientists.  Anyone can find scientists that support whatever they believe.  And there's a whole busload of scientists that believe the limited research.  However, I have heard some scientists actually refer to the particular collection of information that leads to the present panic about "global warming" as "junk science."  Right after Gore received the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. William Gray, head of the Tropical Meteorological Project that predicts hurricanes, said that An Inconvenient Truth is "brainwashing our children" and that it's ridiculous.  In spite of the protests, Al Gore's documentary is accepted as the truth.  This just goes to show the importance of name recognition for an argument. 

The commercials in which a famous basketball player endorses certain basketball shoes make sense.  After all, he probably knows which shoe is better for jumping, twisting, turning, etc.  However, when the same basketball player endorses something that has little relationship to why he's famous -- something like a riding lawnmower -- then I know the advertisers are banking on name recognition and the need we have to relate somehow to our celebrities. 

When political ads tell how bad a character the opposition has, this is using ethos in a reverse way.  Saying the opposing candidate has no morals implies, in contrast, "our candidate has morals."  You know the kind of ad I mean.  This position assumes that you will get the connection between having "good morals" and being a good politician. 

Then there are campaign ads that show the opponent's political record, the assumption being she will continue to support what she has supported before.  I personally prefer this kind of ad to the one that attacks the opposition's character (I am uncomfortable with the judging aspect), but I've noticed that many such "factual" ads exaggerate the results of the opponent's political stance.  For example, when an ad says, "Such-and-such a person has hired a felon to be in charge of the treasury," I think, yeah, but it's possible the candidate didn't know this person was a felon.  Or "So-and-so voted against the Homeland National Security act" and I'm thinking, yeah, it could be because the act wasn't strong enough.  Taken out of context, the facts may not be accurate.  Or the facts may be accurate, but they don't necessarily mean what the advertisers are trying to convey.  For more examples of exaggeration of the truth ("maximizing" -- which, by the way, is just as much a lie as minimizing the truth), see the section on pathos.

Sometimes, if the person supporting the argument isn't famous, persuasion needs to first establish the authority or reputation of that person.  Commercials that put actors in lab coats are saying, "Look, this person is a scientist who knows all about whatever we're trying to sell."   

So how can you use ethos in your argumentative essay?  First, you can establish your own authority.  If you are writing about something you know well, inside and out, then you are an authority.  Tell in your essay how long you've worked in this area and in what ways.  Tell how much experience you've had in this area.  Providing real life anecdotes to illustrate the points you make also demonstrates your authority.  It says you have had experiences relating to the topic.

Second, you can use facts and statistics from reliable authorities.  Because this is an academic setting, your support must be actual authorities.  A quote from Al Gore in your essay on global warming might be dismissed by a discriminating reader.  When you do quote someone, you need to identify who that person is, her reputation and/or position as an authority in the field.  This is a really good reason to be careful about the information you get off the Internet.  Anyone can write anything on the Internet.  In general, you can rely on the accuracy (read:  authority) of information you find in scientific journals because most of them are juried.  That is, the articles published in them have been read and accepted by a board of experienced scientists as scientific and accurate.  You can't get such a guarantee from information on the Internet.    



Logos is related to our word "logic."  My example about attacking the opposition by making personal information about that candidate public has an assumed connection between personal morals and the ability to serve in a certain office.  That example was ethos because it was attacking the candidate's character.  But logos explains that connection and shows how it works.  For example, a habit of thought usually pervades all aspects of a person's life.  If someone is unable to stay out of debt in his personal life, how can you expect him to deal with the taxpayers' money responsibly?  This logic runs "Indebtedness = ineffective public servant."

Here's some logos in response to the drive to raise the minimum wage to a "living" wage.  The interest in raising minimum wage assumes that the people working minimum wage must make a living for themselves and family.  However, a good majority of minimum wage earners are teenagers in high school who do not have to pay for their room and board, and who do not have families they are trying to support.  A second assumption is that minimum wage earners continue earning that wage indefinitely.  My daughter, a high school dropout, got a job at McDonald's starting at over the minimum wage and within a month or two, she'd been given a raise.  This is not an unusual situation at McDonald's; it's the policy.  Even when a worker starts out at minimum wage, most companies automatically raise wages as the worker proves himself.  It would be extremely difficult to maintain a minimum wage status.  The worker would have to be doing really poor work.  Therefore, a "living" wage would not encourage people to do a good job in order to improve their position and pay like the present minimum wage does.



Think of emotion for this technique.  The words "sympathy," "empathy," and "pathetic" come from this word.  Hitler showed that you can do just about anything with a group of people if you push their buttons and get them angry.  Usually it's a person or group of people that represents what they're angry at.  It's probably not very effective to set "life" or "fate" up as the object of anger.  Most people know they can't argue with life.  But they can argue with people who seem to have put them where they are.

Our current president, George W. Bush, has become just such a representative.  Mention Bush, and people become rabid.  I hear people say (mostly on talk radio) things like, "Bush is listening to your phone conversations."  And of course, Bush is doing no such thing.  Even when people attribute to Bush some political action that actually did came from the White House or Congress, I seriously have my doubts that Bush did it.  What they really mean is that Bush's cabinet made these decisions, or Congress, overloaded by Republican Bush supporters at the time, made these decisions.  They say "Bush" simply because he has come to symbolize the "other side" to their own stance. 

If you want to really get people's attention, use Bush as a comparison or simile for the negative side of your argument.  As I write, we are facing the 2006 midterm elections, and the Democratic Party is using this anger as the basis for many of their political ads.  The Patricia Madrid/Heather Wilson contest for the House of Representatives was one of the crucial races for control of Congress.  The Democrats ran an ad that said, "Something's gone wrong with Heather Wilson; she consistently sides with Bush."  (This is in spite of the fact that Republicans were getting peeved at Representative Wilson for the times she opposed Bush.) 

The only problem with this technique is when people become so angry (I used the term "rabid" earlier) their reasoning shuts down.  I've found I cannot discuss anything political with my colleagues because their anger gets in the way of their logic.  However, it's true that most of our political decisions are made based on our emotions rather than our logic.

Pity is another emotion that can be evoked.  You know, the commercials showing the starving little children in Africa, with distended bellies, and flies crawling around on their eyelids and mouths.  Pity is a great motivator.  There's no end to whom we can pity.  The convict on death row.  The convict's mother.  The convict's victims.  The convict's victims' mothers.  The guards dealing with the convict.  Pity is why, in 2005, people gave money, food, and time to help the victims of the South-East Asia Tsunami.  And then they gave more for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.  People gave more than they could afford to give.  

To use pathos, of course, you can use vivid description and lots of examples.  If you want to show how poor the people on a certain street are, describe the children.  Use all your senses.  Wanting to demonstrate how healthy a certain group of people is, describe their children in glowing terms.  Children tend to grab our emotions more than any other object or group of people.

I'm not advocating that you manipulate the reader through her emotions, but you need to judiciously choose your language and vocabulary, as well as the facts you present, to get the most effect for your argument.  So how do you do that?

Let's start with vocabulary.  English is rich with vocabulary; every meaning can have several words to represent it.  When you look up a word in the dictionary, what you get is the definition -- it's called the "denotation."  But there's also "connotation," which is the color or the attitude of the word, its positivism or negativity.  For example, if I say a woman was "skinny," am I describing her in a positive light or a negative one?  If I wanted to put her in a positive light, would I not say she was "slender"?  Choose your words carefully.  And be sure you know not only the denoted meaning of the word but also the connotation. 

There's another group of words I call "red-flag words."  These are words that evoke emotion, no matter what.  "Patriotism," "murder," "family," "mother," "love," and "sex," are a few that I can think of now.  Be careful that the emotion you are appealing to is the one you're getting. 

Another way to use your language is the ability to emphasize certain information while downplaying the rest with subordinating clauses.  This is very subtle, but you need to be aware of it.  If you must admit some truth that is the opposite of the point you're trying to make, or if it somehow doesn't support your point, put it in a subordinate clause. 



While New Mexico has its benefits, the drawbacks of living here are many.

This puts the negative part as more important than the positive part.  If you didn't want to do that, you must put the negative part after a subordinating conjunction.



New Mexico has its benefits although the drawbacks of living here are many.

Now it seems as if the drawbacks can be dealt with, and the emphasis is on the benefits.

All the ads that have sexy models in them are geared to evoke our emotions, to arouse our passion.  Those commercials about cars speeding through beautiful countryside make us want that kind of freedom.  If we can't have it literally, we'll take it symbolically -- by buying the car.

According to the writer of "Three Ways to Persuade," a paper published on the Cal State LA University Writing Center website, emotions often cause political wheels to turn.  School shootings have made people suddenly very interested in gun control laws, much more than they were before, even though the reasons for and against gun control haven't changed.

Although using pathos can be viewed as sneaky and manipulative, it's also effective.  Just be cautious in your application of the technique so that your reader doesn't get disgusted and tosses out your whole argument.


The Truth?

I titled this piece "Argument and Variations of the Truth" because I also want to point out that your use of language can radically change meaning.  Over a year ago, a mentally unstable man killed five people in Albuquerque in one day.  Now it's coming out in the news that he had gone to a hospital three days in a row asking for help just before the day he committed the murders.  One report, however, said the man had gone to the hospital to ask for help "three days before" the murders.  Can you see how just that slight difference of words changes the meaning?  Now it's implied that he went once, and then three days later, he murdered.  In reality, he went one day, then the next day, then the next day, and on the fourth day he murdered.  One of the greatest needs for the essay writer is accuracy and precision, saying what you mean.

Lawyers bear the reputation of being "liars."  That's because their job isn't (necessarily) to tell the truth, but to win the suit.  In order to win, often they must exaggerate.  I saw that happen when I sued my boss for back pay.  My lawyer, a kind, honest woman, exaggerated my situation to the judge.  I almost corrected her, but then I saw how the other lawyer exaggerated my boss's situation.  Fortunately, I think the judge cut through both untruths to get at something approximating the real truth.

Sometimes people think that their exaggeration will win their argument.  We see this most in election campaign ads.  An ad I heard this morning said Congress candidate Steve Pierce remained silent on "sexual predator" Mark Foley.  This is an example of overstating a situation.  "Sexual predator" is a red-flag phrase, bringing out instant visions of a dirty old man stalking school grounds for some innocent victim, who is subsequently raped and sometimes killed.  Please don't see me as defending Mark Foley.  He probably is a dirty old man with a perverted mind and sexual appetites for younger men.  BUT the news article on Foley's actions says he was texting sexually explicit messages to a FORMER House page.  The FORMER House page was an adult at the time of the text-message exchange.  The more tolerant of people (usually the Liberal Democrats, but it looks like they dropped the ball on this one) would say, "Whatever happens between consenting adults is up to them."  My point is "sexual predator" is a very inappropriate phrase to be applied to Foley in this case.  At the very least, it's premature.  He has not yet been determined to be a sexual predator, only a sexual deviant with little sense of propriety.  And yet, people hearing that radio ad probably will be all kinds of mad at Steve Pierce for not saying anything about this evil pervert colleague of his.  Heck, he might lose his race over this.

Notice when you read news stories and hear news reports how they differ from the ads.  A commercial might say, "Proven to increase your metabolism" while a news story on the study that supposedly proved this actually says, "The study implies that metabolism may be increased under certain conditions." 

A news reporter is not allowed to write "the criminal" or "the thief" in his article.  Why?  Because no matter how obvious it is that this person is the criminal or the thief -- she could be standing there with the goods in hand -- she has not yet been proven to be so in a court of law.  In other words, she is innocent until proven guilty.  To be accurate, the reporter must say, "the suspect" or "the alleged thief" -- meaning someone said she was the thief.  And even once she is proven to be the thief in a court, she still may be referred to as the "convict" -- meaning she was convicted of the crime, not necessarily that she did the crime. 

Now I'm not saying you have to be as strict with your accuracy standards in your essays as news reporters are supposed to be.  You may choose to call "a spade a spade" -- but be careful about making assumptions that are not based on facts.  If you call someone some name that evokes emotion, be sure you have some substance to support it -- some logos or ethos.  Otherwise your language house of cards may come tumbling down all about you when it's shown that a basic assumption you've made isn't true, and it's all built around a structure of emotion.  A combination of honesty and fervor will win your argument and persuade your opponent. 

For a more visual treatment of the three methods of argument, go to Greek Rhetoric Revisited.

  This page was last updated Tuesday, May 18, 2010, by Connie Gulick.