Argument fundamentals
Argument fundamentals
To write an effective Argument essay, you’ll need to first understand the essential components of an argument. Here’s a quick breakdown of an argument’s three parts:
  • Conclusion: What the argument’s arguing
  • Premise(s): How it’s making that argument
  • Assumption(s): What’s unstated yet required by the argument
The Argument essay requires you to be an expert at identifying these three main parts and knowing how they work together. Regardless of the topic, the Argument essay will always ask you to evaluate the given argument and to highlight what’s good and not so good about the argument’s conclusion, premises, and assumptions.
Every single argument, whether on the GRE or in life, has a conclusion and at least one premise to support it. Many real-life arguments contain multiple premises and at least one assumption. The argument topic you’ll see on the GRE will consist of a conclusion backed up by at least two premises and will most likely contain one or more central assumptions.
Conclusion
The conclusion of an argument is the author’s point. The conclusion may or may not be explicitly stated in the argument, but it’s always what the author is trying to prove or suggest.
Here are a few words and phrases that indicate a conclusion is coming:
  • As a result
  • Clearly
  • Consequently
  • Hence
  • In conclusion
  • In short
  • It follows that
  • So
  • The point is
  • Therefore
  • Thus
Not every argument will contain one of these words, but most probably will. This brings us to a great rule of thumb for identifying conclusions:
The conclusion is often the first or last sentence of an argument.
Consider the following sample Argument essay topic:

Studies show that as we’ve become more technically advanced, our health has deteriorated rapidly. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and virtually every major ailment are far more common today than they were thirty years ago. The primary reason for this deterioration is the sedentary lifestyle associated with today’s high-tech jobs. Clearly, our health will continue to decline as long as we persist in our technological advances.

So, what’s the conclusion, or point, of this argument? The word clearly in the final sentence might have tipped you off that the conclusion was coming, or the sentence’s placement might have clued you in. Either way, the assertion that “our health will continue to decline as long as we persist in our technological advances” is what the author of this argument is trying to prove. We’ll use this topic as the basis for the sample Argument essay we’ll write later in this chapter.
Premises
The premises of an argument are the facts or beliefs used to support the conclusion. They are always stated. In other words, premises are the stated reasons for the author’s point. Think of premises as evidence—they’re the reasons that lead to the topic. After you’ve identified the conclusion of an argument, the premises are often whatever’s left in the paragraph.
Paraphrasing Premises
In our sample Argument essay topic, the premises are everything except the last sentence of the argument:

Studies show that as we’ve become more technically advanced, our health has deteriorated rapidly. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and virtually every major ailment are far more common today than they were thirty years ago. The primary reason for this deterioration is the sedentary lifestyle associated with today’s high-tech jobs.

To ensure that you really understand the premises, try to translate them into your own words. This is a great way to help simplify what could be a complicated, confusing argument. It might help to jot down a few notes on your scratch paper.
The table below shows our paraphrase of this argument topic’s premises.
Premise Our Paraphrase
1. Studies show that as we’ve become more technically advanced, our health has deteriorated rapidly. Our health has declined as tech has advanced
2. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and virtually every major ailment are far more common today than they were thirty years ago. Health significantly worse than 30 yrs ago; disease widespread
3. The primary reason for this deterioration is the sedentary lifestyle associated with today’s high-tech jobs. Health bad b/c people w/ high–tech jobs don’t exercise regularly
That’s it. Don’t waste time trying to craft beautifully written premises. Just write them in your own words, quick and dirty. Anything goes, as long as it helps you understand how the author is attempting to support the conclusion.
You probably noticed that our sample topic has three premises, which is pretty standard on the GRE. On test day, you might see as few as one premise or as many as four, but usually you’ll get something in between.
Remember too that premises are always stated. This is in sharp contrast to assumptions, the last piece of the argument puzzle, which we’ll discuss next.
Assumptions
Assumptions are additional beliefs the author must have in order to reach the conclusion. They are the bridge between the premises and the conclusion. Assumptions are never stated. And because they’re not stated, assumptions are usually the hardest part of an argument to identify. On all but the simplest arguments, you’ll have to stop and think about what else is necessary to reach the author’s conclusion. Here’s a tip:
Assumptions usually concern anything mentioned in the premises but not in the conclusion, or anything mentioned in the conclusion but not in the premises.
Think about this for a second, and it should make sense. Assumptions link the premises and the conclusion, so you need to pay attention to what is mentioned in the conclusion and what is mentioned in the premises. How the author moves from one part of the argument to the other almost always involves the assumptions, or the link between the two parts.
Identifying Assumptions
Identifying assumptions requires you to really think about the argument. You should constantly be asking yourself, “What else besides what is actually written must the author believe to reach the conclusion? How are the parts related? What’s the link?” Let’s see how this works, first in the context of our sample argument from the X-ray and then using the sample Argument essay topic discussed earlier in this section. Here again for your consideration is the X-ray topic. See if you can pick out any unstated yet necessary premises.

Global warming has not and will not have the disastrous consequences predicted by the scientific community. Although experts claim that temperatures have risen dramatically, with detrimental effects, these claims are largely exaggerated. For example, the mean global temperature has only risen 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit in twenty-five years. Further, Arctic sea ice has decreased less than 0.3 percent since 1996, indicating that the polar ice caps have not melted significantly. Thus, we need not take any measures to reverse the alleged effects of global warming.

Okay, how’d you make out? The conclusion is the last sentence: We need not take any measures to reverse the alleged effects of global warming. Everything else in the topic is a premise. The argument assumes that an increase in temperature of 0.4 degrees and a reduction in Artic sea ice of 0.3 percent are insignificant. Although these numbers may sound small, it’s very possible that they represent significant effects. Furthermore, the argument assumes that temperatures and sea ice will rise or decline at the same steady rate, and it discounts the idea that there could be a dramatic increase in global temperatures or a dramatic decrease in Arctic sea ice as a result of global warming. To make the unequivocal assertion that no anti–global warming measures need be taken, the argument assumes that what holds for the present will also hold for the future. A “6”-caliber essay written on this topic would need to point out and discuss these assumptions.
Now try the same for the sample topic discussed earlier:

Studies show that as we’ve become more technically advanced, our health has deteriorated rapidly. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and virtually every major ailment are far more common today than they were thirty years ago. The primary reason for this deterioration is the sedentary lifestyle associated with today’s high-tech jobs. Clearly, our health will continue to decline as long as we persist in our technological advances.

The conclusion of the argument (Clearly, our health will continue to decline as long as we persist in our technological advances) is the only point in the argument that talks about the future. Interesting. The premises just talk about the past and the present (disease is more widespread now; people with high-tech jobs don’t exercise as much). So, the link between the premises and the conclusion must somehow connect the premises about the past and present with this conclusion about the future. One assumption that makes this connection is this:
Past and present trends are indicative of the future.
In other words, by thinking about how the past differs from the present in some respect, we might be able to come to some conclusions about the future. So, what are some other assumptions? Again, we need to think about what the author is really saying: We have high-tech jobs, so we don’t exercise, and so we get sick—and as technology has increased, our health has deteriorated.
So far, so good. But couldn’t there be other factors that influence our health? Considering these other factors leads to a couple more assumptions:
Advances in medicine won’t counteract the effect of a sedentary lifestyle.
Aha! Medicine helps us get better when we’re sick, but the author of this argument assumes that medicine or advances in health care won’t be able to fix the lack of exercise that comes with high-tech jobs.
Diet is not as important as exercise in determining health.
This argument assumes that lack of exercise trumps all other considerations, including a good diet. According to the author’s assumptions, then, even a good diet won’t be enough to counterbalance the sedentary lifestyle that comes with a high-tech job. These assumptions will form the backbone of our Argument essay, which we’ll construct using our step method.
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