Identifying Arguments In Texts

Arguments- Easy or Complex?

Finding the argument in a discussion or the central idea in an article is easy, right? Just check out our examples of deductive and inductive reasoning! Well, not so fast! Some basic tutorials in argumentation would certainly have you believe that. But step away from the classic example- All humans are mortal/ Socrates is a man/ Therefore Socrates is mortal- and you might find yourself in muddy territory. It’s enough to pick up a newspaper article or academic essay and realize things are not so simple. You soon find yourself in the middle of a conversation which started way before you got there. There are comparisons included, ironies thrown, not to mention unstated opinions that you need to pick up with a fine tooth comb. All while trying to figure out the central idea or the author’s position on a specific issue.

You could say that any written article is an argument. But how do you figure out what it’s all about?

This post provides a strategy (adapted from Jennifer Fletcher’s book- Teaching Arguments) which you can employ in order to identify the arguments in the texts you read and analyse.

The concept of argument is used in quite a few constructs: critical thinking focuses on argument. So do informal logic, rhetoric and argumentation. They all share this focus on argument evaluation.

Definition: An argument is made to respond to a problem or issue. Within the argument, a position or opinion is adopted with regards to the issue. Reasons are also presented in order to support the position. A final element of an argument is an attempt to persuade others to accept the position presented by the author.

So we have 4 elements which constitute the argument:

* Reasons supporting the position

* Unstated attempt to persuade others to accept the position/ point of view.

Here is an example using a helpful picture:

Central Argument: People should be pro gun control * Position- pro gun control

-high rates for gun mortality and injury

-mass shootings

Arguments, Contributing Arguments, Premises and Conclusions- How confusing!
To make things a little difficult, the concept of argument is used in two different instances.

First of all, the argument and secondly, the contributing arguments. The contributing arguments are the reasons given to support the proposed position, while the argument is… well- the overall argument!

Furthermore, the overarching argument is also called the “conclusion”. Be careful not to confuse the conclusion of an argument with the classic conclusion or summary of a piece of writing.

In this example above, the overarching argument or the conclusion is that people should be pro gun control, while the contributing arguments are constituted by the reasons: -high rates for gun mortality and injury and mass shootings.

These reasons supporting the position are also referred to as premises, while the position regarding the issue can be referred to as conclusion.

So figuring out what an argument is all about, involves understanding the overall issue, the author’s position on the issue, as well as the reasons provided to support the point of view. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that all arguments are pros and cons on certain issues. As we’ll see later in this post, such positions which are for or against a certain topic are questions of policy. But these are not the only questions posed in today’s complex world. Other issues involve questions of fact: What are the origins of the universe?; questions of definition: What are the characteristics of reggae music?; questions of quality: are Hollywood movies more entertaining than Bollywood movies?

Identifying the Central Argument of a Text in a Newspaper Article
In order to demonstrate how to identify the central argument of a text, I chose The Guardian view on the climate and coronavirus: global warnings article.

1. Getting the Idea
Skimming through the article, I make some notes next to each paragraph of the text (notes signalled in italic letters under the paragraph excerpt). The objective here is to get the idea of the whole text, trying to figure out what the issue is and what is the author trying to convince me of- their position, or the argument’s conclusion.

I proceed by summarizing and rephrasing the author’s points within each paragraph. This should help me gain some clarity and see beneath the surface.

While doing this, I try to keep an open mind and to suspend judgment. At this point I need to silence my own opinions about the topic and listen with open intent to what the author is conveying.

The article has seven paragraphs:


The text begins with the idea that the most desirable thing right now is to let people resume their lives.


But other things matter as well, such as the way in which the world leaders manage the economic and political crisis, and the list of priorities alongside human welfare should include the biosphere and its future. This seems to be a hint to the central idea of this text.


The author states that it’s not known with certainty what total impact the virus will have, but so far the impact seems great. A few examples are provided to support this:

-carbon emission cuts, such as 18% in China between Feb and March and between 40-60% in the recent weeks in Europe

-road traffic fallen by 70% in UK

-global air traffic halved

-some experts argue that the causes of the pandemic have to do with exploitation of other species


This seems to be the central paragraph where the author’s position is stated clearly: although the economic consequences of the pandemic will be brutal, if we are to avoid “future savage waves of destruction to people’s livelihoods” all efforts must be made now for a green recovery, with all stimulus packages directed towards renewable energy and zero- or low-carbon infrastructure and transport. So the author is proposing an ecological approach of coming out of the lockdown.


This paragraph is suggesting that this effort towards green recovery is already potentially undermined with governments coming under pressure to bail out oil and gas companies (examples offered- US and Canada). The example of oil is continued in this paragraph: due to low prices oil becomes more competitive, but since there is a plunging demand, the authors suggest that this opportunity must be seized by all those who oppose the continued dominance of fossil fuels. Does the author mean central policies and governments by using the phrase “all those who oppose” here? It seems that the main position for a policy of green recovery is reinforced here.


Here the authors suggest that this could be a time for incredible changes. A comparison is made: the way the UK conservative government have adopted policies of interventionism, seen by them as socialist or reckless before; similarly, other impossibilities could become real as well: a willingness to tackle the “climate chaos”.


This is the final paragraph reinforcing the authors’ position and the urgency of the matter. It’s a recognition that this cannot happen without a fight against those who “promote a return to business (and emissions) as usual”. A striking final warning: there is no exit strategy from our planet.

2. Signal Words
Author Stella Cottrell makes an interesting suggestion which can be helpful to pay attention to: some authors could use specific words to indicate that a conclusion (or central argument) is being made. It might be useful to look out for words such as “finally”, “therefore”, “so”, “as a consequence”. Making a note of these words is a good idea, but do not take them for granted. Always judge them in the overall context of the topic being discussed, as they might not always precede the spelling out of the author’s position on the given topic.

Additionally, as some arguments are deductive, words involved in making deductions could also be employed: “this means that”, “in effect”, “this should”, “this must”, “as a result”; or their negative equivalent: “this should never”. Look out for these as well.

If you have followed points 1 and 2 and still have not been able to figure out the central argument, then the next point should save you!

3. Stasis Theory
Sometimes it can be quite difficult to identify the central question of a text. When all fails, author Jennifer Fletcher advises to resort to Stasis Theory.

Stasis theory was developed in classical antiquity and revised by several modern rhetoricians.

The word “stasis” (plural “stases”) means slowing down or reaching a stopping point. The stopping point here is the question being discussed.

This approach provides a way to classify the type of argument being made. Different authors propose different versions of stases.

Going through Fletcher’s following questions and modifying them to work on the topic you are analysing, can help figuring out the central argument. I’ve included examples provided by Professor Dr Keith Grant-Davie of Rhetorical Theory at Utah State University:

* Question of Fact: argues about what happens or what happened. Did something happen? Is it real? What is its origin or cause?

Question of Fact Examples:

What happens to time and space in the vicinity of a black hole? (We don’t know for sure.)

How did the dinosaurs become extinct? (There are different theories.)

Was the Biblical flood a historical reality?

Where did the bullets that killed John F. Kennedy come from?

* Question of Definition: characterizes the subject in relation to some other terms or ideas. What is its nature? What are its parts? How is it classified?

Question of Definition Examples:

Can the conflict in Iraq be classified as a civil war?

Is dance a true sport?

* Question of Quality: how good or bad is the subject? What is its quality? Is it good or bad? Harmful or helpful?

Question of Quality Examples:

Is polygamy morally wrong? In all cases?

Is it good to intervene centrally in the economic game?

* Question of Policy: What should be done about the subject? What actions should be taken? How can we make things better?

Question of Policy Examples:

Should US ban the ownership of guns?

Should euthanasia be legal?

Stasis theory can be extremely helpful especially when two or several people discuss the same text and cannot seem to agree on what the author is saying. Spelling out the central argument of the text can help clarify if all people discussing the topic are on the same wave of length regarding what the author is trying to convey. Agreeing on the question at issue needs to be done before going into deeper discussions regarding the validity of arguments.

Here is an example I came across recently when watching BBC’s Normal People series:

Marianne and Connell- the main characters in Normal PeopleAt the end of episode 4, one of Marianne’s colleagues makes some rather strong claims about a reading they had done:

Colleague: “It’s disclaimed there’s no such thing as the truth. Something is either a fact or it’s not. It’s either true or it’s not. How do you put that aside?”

Marianne: “I don’t… but understanding how we decide which facts are disseminated, how we assess different planes…”

Colleague: “So basically gravity is a social construct”

Marianne: “This isn’t about negating the existence of fact. Like obviously gravity is real, but it’s still valuable for historians to study the development of discourses around gravity, so we can learn how knowledge is produced and by whom and within what structures.”

I really like this dialogue because up until the end of the exchange, it almost seems that Marianne and her colleague are arguing on the same topic. True, there is a hint that they are on about different things when she says “how we decide which facts are disseminated, how we assess different planes”, but here she is abruptly interrupted by her colleague, not being able to finish her train of thought. Finally, when Marianne says “This isn’t about negating the existence of fact” it becomes clear that the two students had not reached an agreement regarding the central argument of the reading. It just goes to show how much time we can waste in similar discussions when participants in a conversation are disseminating different aspects of the topic, in this case the colleague referring to a question of fact about gravity- is gravity real? – while Marianne was looking at a question of fact about the development of discourse around gravity- how knowledge is produced, by whom and within what structures.

4. Applying Stasis Theory
Taking the stasis theory and applying it on the Guardian’s article on climate and coronavirus, I come up with the following questions:

Question of Definition:

* What impact does/did the coronavirus have on the climate emergency?

Question of Fact:

* Is the exploitation of other species the cause of the coronavirus?

Question of Policy:

* Should the future policies ensure that recovery from the crisis is “green” by directing all stimulus packages only towards renewable energy and zero- or low-carbon infrastructure and transport?

Questions of Quality:

* Is it good that US and Canada governments bail out oil and gas companies?

* Is it good that UK government intervened in the economy during the coronavirus crisis?

If the central question was not already obvious before going through this exercise, it is now a matter of deciding which of these could be the one addressed by the author.

Comparing all these questions against another read of the text and notes I have taken previously, brings me to the central question, or the main argument being made here: it looks like the article is a question of policy- should the future policies ensure that recovery from the crisis is “green” by directing all stimulus packages only towards renewable energy and zero- or low-carbon infrastructure and transport?

Having figured out the main question, I can move to analyse the main reasons given by the author to support their position, which I will do in the next post.

Meanwhile, let’s note an important distinction of identifying the central argument within the academic articles.

Identifying the Central Argument of a Text in an Academic Paper
When reading an academic paper, the same steps described above need to be employed. Additionally, you might find it helpful to look at the abstract and conclusion first, in order to identify the elements of the argument as these should be clearly laid out in these two places.

I took a look at an academic paper on the pandemic lockdown and the role of government commitment written by scientists at the Columbia University in New York.

I have also highlighted the central idea which the authors hint at in the abstract and detail further in the conclusion. The central question seems to be a question of policy here as well.

The Abstract:

The Conclusion

As with any academic paper, the complexity of the issues discussed requires careful reading and documentation, so best not to rely just on reading these two sections, but do a deep dive in the entire document.

I would say that identifying arguments is not that easy. But employing the methods suggested by Jennifer Fletcher like keeping an open mind, looking out for hints and summarizing the author’s points and applying stasis theory to figure out the central question should do the trick.

The next step will be to analyse the argument- but this is a matter for another post. Stay tuned!