Argument Analysis

Sometimes, the best way to learn how to write a good argument is to start by analyzing other arguments. When you do this, you get to see what works, what doesn’t, what strategies another author uses, what structures seem to work well and why, and more.

Therefore, even though this section on argument analysis is one of the last lessons in this area, your professor may have you start here before you draft a single word of your own essay.

In the pages that follow, you will learn about analyzing arguments for both content and rhetorical strategies. The content analysis may come a little easier for you, but the rhetorical analysis is extremely important. To become a good writer, we must develop the language of writing and learn how to use that language to talk about the “moves” other writers make.

When we understand the decisions other writers make and why, it helps us make more informed decisions as writers. We can move from being the “accidental” writer, where we might do well but are not sure why, to being a “purposeful” writer, where we have an awareness of the impact our writing has on our audience at all levels.

Thinking About Content

Content analysis of an argument is really just what it seems—looking closely at the content in an argument. When you’re analyzing an argument for content, you’re looking at things like claims, evidence to support those claims, and if that evidence makes sense.

The Toulmin method is a great tool for analyzing the content of an argument. In fact, it was developed as a tool for analyzing the content of an argument. Using the different concepts we learn in the Toulmin model, we are able to examine an argument by thinking about what claim is being made, what evidence is being used to support that claim, the warrants behind that evidence, and more.

When you analyze an argument, there is a good chance your professor will have you review and use the Toulmin information provided in the Excelsior OWL.

However, the lessons you have learned about logical fallacies will also help you analyze the content of an argument. You’ll want to look closely at the logic being presented in the claims and evidence. Does the logic hold up, or do you see logical fallacies? Obviously, if you see fallacies, you should really question the argument.

Thinking Rhetorically

As a part of thinking rhetorically about an argument, your professor may ask you to write a formal or informal rhetorical analysis essay. Rhetorical analysis is about “digging in” and exploring the strategies and writing style of a particular piece. Rhetorical analysis can be tricky because, chances are, you haven’t done a lot of rhetorical analysis in the past.

To add to this trickiness, you can write a rhetorical analysis of any piece of information, not just an essay. You may be asked to write a rhetorical analysis of an ad, an image, or a commercial.

The key is to start now! Rhetorical analysis is going to help you think about strategies other authors have made and how or why these strategies work or don’t work. In turn, your goal is to be more aware of these things in your own writing.

When you analyze a work rhetorically, you are going to explore the following concepts in a piece:

  • Before you begin to write your research paper, you should think about your audience. Your audience should have an impact on your writing. You should think about audience because, if you want to be effective, you must consider audience needs and expectations. It’s important to remember audience affects both what and how you write.

    Most research paper assignments will be written with an academic audience in mind. Writing for an academic audience (your professors and peers) is one of the most difficult writing tasks because college students and faculty make up a very diverse group. It can be difficult for student writers to see outside their own experiences and to think about how other people might react to their messages.

    But this kind of rhetorical thinking is necessary to effective writing. Good writers try to see their writing through the eyes of their audience. This, of course, requires a lot of flexibility as a writer, but the rewards for such thinking are great when you have a diverse group of readers interested in and, perhaps, persuaded by your writing.

  • Rhetorically speaking, purpose is about making decisions as a writer about why you’re writing and what you want your audience to take from your work.

    There are three objectives you may have when writing a research paper.

    • To inform – When you write a research paper to inform, you’re not making an argument, but you do want to stress the importance of your topic. You might think about your purpose as educating your audience on a particular topic.
    • To persuade – When you write a research paper to persuade, your purpose should be to take a stance on your topic. You’ll want to develop a thesis statement that makes a clear assertion about some aspect of your topic.
    • To analyze – Although all research papers require some analysis, some research papers make analysis a primary purpose. So, your focus wouldn’t be to inform or persuade, but to analyze your topic. You’ll want to synthesize your research and, ideally, reach new, thoughtful conclusions based on your research.
    • TIPS! Here are a few tips when it comes to thinking about purpose. 
    • You must be able to move beyond the idea that you’re writing your research paper only because your professor is making you. While that may be true on some level, you must decide on a purpose based on what topic you’re researching and what you want to say about that topic.

      You must decide for yourself, within the requirements of your assignment, why you’re engaging in the research process and writing a paper. Only when you do this will your writing be engaging for your audience.

      Your assignment or project instructions affect purpose. If your professor gives you a formal writing assignment sheet for your research paper, it’s especially important to read very carefully through your professor’s expectations. If your professor doesn’t provide a formal assignment sheet, be prepared to ask questions about the purpose of the assignment.

  • Once you have considered your audience and established your purpose, it’s time to think about voice. Your voice in your writing is essentially how you sound to your audience. Voice is an important part of writing a research paper, but many students never stop to think about voice in their writing. It’s important to remember voice is relative to audience and purpose. The voice you decide to use will have a great impact on your audience.

    • Formal – When using a formal, academic or professional voice, you’ll want to be sure to avoid slang and clichés, like “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” You’ll want to avoid conversational tone and even contractions. So, instead of “can’t,” you would want to use “cannot.” You’ll want to think about your academic or professional audience and think about what kind of impression you want your voice to make on that audience.
    • Semi-formal – A semi-formal tone is not quite as formal as a formal, academic or professional tone. Although you would certainly want to avoid slang and clichés, you might use contractions, and you might consider a tone that is a little more conversational.
      Students sometimes make errors in voice, which can have a negative impact on an essay. For example, when writing researched essays for the first time, many students lose their voices entirely to research, and the essay reads more like a list of what other people have said on a particular topic than a real essay. In a research essay, you want to balance your voice with the voices from your sources.

    It’s also easy to use a voice that is too informal for college writing, especially when you are just becoming familiar with academia and college expectations. 

    Ultimately, thinking about your writing rhetorically will help you establish a strong, appropriate voice for your writing.

  • Appealing to ethos is all about using credibility, either your own as a writer or of your sources, in order to be persuasive. Essentially, ethos is about believability. Will your audience find you believable? What can you do to ensure that they do?

    You can establish ethos—or credibility—in two basic ways: you can use or build your own credibility on a topic, or you can use credible sources, which, in turn, builds your credibility as a writer.

    Credibility is extremely important in building an argument, so, even if you don’t have a lot of built-in credibility or experience with a topic, it’s important for you to work on your credibility by integrating the credibility of others into your argument.

    Aristotle argued that ethos was the most powerful of the modes of persuasion, and while you may disagree, you can’t discount its power. After all, think about the way advertisers use ethos to get us to purchase products. Taylor Swift sells us perfume, and Peyton Manning sells us pizza. But, it’s really their fame and name they are selling.

    With the power of ethos in mind, here are some strategies you can use to help build your ethos in your arguments.

    If you have specific experience or education related to your issues, mention it in some way.

  • Appealing to pathos is about appealing to your audience’s emotions. Because people can be easily moved by their emotions, pathos is a powerful mode of persuasion. When you think about appealing to pathos, you should consider all of the potential emotions people experience. While we often see or hear arguments that appeal to sympathy or anger, appealing to pathos is not limited to these specific emotions. You can also use emotions such as humor, joy or even frustration, to note a few, in order to convince your audience.

    It’s important, however, to be careful when appealing to pathos, as arguments with an overly-strong focus on emotion are not considered as credible in an academic setting. This means you could, and should, use pathos, but you have to do so carefully. An overly-emotional argument can cause you to lose your credibility as a writer.

    You have probably seen many arguments based on an appeal to pathos. In fact, a large number of the commercials you see on television or the internet actually focus primarily on pathos. For example, many car commercials tap into our desire to feel special or important. They suggest that, if you drive a nice car, you will automatically be respected.

    With the power of pathos in mind, here are some strategies you can use to carefully build pathos in your arguments.

    • Think about the emotions most related to your topic in order to use those emotions effectively. For example, if you’re calling for change in animal abuse laws, you would want to appeal to your audience’s sense of sympathy, possibly by providing examples of animal cruelty. If your argument is focused on environmental issues related to water conservation, you might provide examples of how water shortages affect metropolitan areas in order to appeal to your audience’s fear of a similar occurrence.
    • In an effort to appeal to pathos, use examples to illustrate your position. Just be sure the examples you share are credible and can be verified.
    • In academic arguments, be sure to balance appeals to pathos with appeals to logos (which will be explored on the next page) in order to maintain your ethos or credibility as a writer.
    • When presenting evidenced based on emotion, maintain an even tone of voice. If you sound too emotional, you might lose your audience’s respect.
  • Logos is about appealing to your audience’s logical side. You have to think about what makes sense to your audience and use that as you build your argument. As writers, we appeal to logos by presenting a line of reasoning in our arguments that is logical and clear. We use evidence, such as statistics and factual information, when we appeal to logos.

    In order to develop strong appeals to logos, we have to avoid faulty logic. Faulty logic can be anything from assuming one event caused another to making blanket statements based on little evidence. Logical fallacies should always be avoided. We will explore logical fallacies in another section.

    Appeals to logos are an important part of academic writing, but you will see them in commercials as well. Although they more commonly use pathos and ethos, advertisers will sometimes use logos to sell products. For example, commercials based on saving consumers money, such as car commercials that focus on miles-per-gallon, are appealing to the consumers’ sense of logos.

    As you work to build logos in your arguments, here are some strategies to keep in mind.

    • Both experience and source material can provide you with evidence to appeal to logos. While outside sources will provide you with excellent evidence in an argumentative essay, in some situations, you can share personal experiences and observations. Just make sure they are appropriate to the situation and you present them in a clear and logical manner.
    • Remember to think about your audience as you appeal to logos. Just because something makes sense in your mind, doesn’t mean it will make the same kind of sense to your audience. You need to try to see things from your audience’s perspective. Having others read your writing, especially those who might disagree with your position, is helpful.
    • Be sure to maintain clear lines of reasoning throughout your argument. One error in logic can negatively impact your entire position. When you present faulty logic, you lose credibility.
    • When presenting an argument based on logos, it is important to avoid emotional overtones and maintain an even tone of voice. Remember, it’s not just a matter of the type of evidence you are presenting; how you present this evidence is important as well.

You will be thinking about the decisions an author has made along these lines and thinking about whether these decisions are effective or ineffective.

The following page provides a sample rhetorical analysis with some notes to help you better understand your goals when writing a formal rhetorical analysis.


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