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Presenting Arguments Logically

• Undefined Terms
• Generalization
• Black or white
• Abstractions
• Analogy
• Syllogisms
• Circular Argument
• Begging the Question
• Argument of the Beard
• Non Sequiturs
• Fallacies of Relevance
• Catchall Explanation
• Slanted Language

Undefined Terms
The first step toward logical writing is to define your terms. If you are uncertain of the
meaning of the language you are using, you are likely to make false or illogical claims.


The basis of virtually all logical errors is the assumption that "some" equals "all."

Do not assume that because you hold an opinion, the same is true of the rest of the world.
If you write, "Nobody thinks smoking is acceptable any more," you will undoubtedly be
assaulted by a mob of irate tobacconists. You must be aware of the circumstance and be
more precise: "Nobody in my class thinks smoking is acceptable."

Politicians are especially adept at assuming that their position is that of the majority. If
there is inconvenient evidence, in the form of election results or polls that contradict
them, they may choose to invent a "silent majority" that actually supports them without
ever saying so.

Deductive reasoning is a way of thinking that draws inferences from general statements
or uses generalizations to apply what is true in one instance to what is true in another
related instance. You must be careful not to assume that what applies to one situation
always applies to another. A hasty generalization will draw a conclusion from an
insufficiently representative source; for example, a survey of an English class might
produce the information that 90had read Beowulf. One could not assume, however, that
ninety percent of all university students had read it.
It was deductive reasoning that led to the ancient practice of letting blood as a "cure" for
various diseases. If the patient is flushed, and her heart is beating fast, it can be deduced
that she has too much blood in her body: pass the leech.

If a generalization does not stand up to the question, "Can you prove it?" think twice
about using it.

Black or White
A black or white, or either/or argument assumes that only two alternatives exist:

"Was Shakespeare sexist, or was he an early feminist?"

There are many other possibilities.

A more expansive example would be a paper that claimed that the First World War was
caused either by the Alliance System or by German aggression. Given the extraordinary
and wonderful complexity of the world we live in, the answer is bound to be more
complex than these simple alternatives.

The black and white argument is also used to hold up a shaky thesis. The writer presents
the argument as if it is the only solution to a grave problem: "If teleregistration is
abandoned, chaos will result." The writer is asking the reader to choose between
teleregistration and chaos, rather than to examine the entire situation.

An abstraction is a word which stands for a quality found in a number of different
contexts from which it has been taken away or abstracted. In conversations on "ethics" or
"morality," the process of abstraction is often carried so far that we make the fundamental
error of assuming these abstractions are tangible, definable objects.

Such concepts as "nature," "beauty," or "truth" are not so much indefinable as receptive
to an infinite number of definitions. Never assume that the reader's notions are the same
as yours. A discussion of abstract ideals must maintain its connection to the topic at hand,
and you must be especially careful to define the abstract terms you use.

While an analogy is a useful means of explanation, it does not constitute proof.
Argument by analogy tends to evoke a predictable emotional response because it is
usually based on accepted symbolism; for example, during the Gulf War Saddam Hussein
was routinely compared to Hitler, as if doing so automatically provided a justification for
Remember, what is true of one thing in one set of circumstances is not necessarily true of
another thing in another set of circumstances. By drawing analogies, you are
manipulating the reader into thinking about the comparison rather than the original
subject. Use analogy to clarify or enhance your argument but do not deceive yourself into
thinking that you are proving it.

A false analogy makes an inadequate comparison:

"Deciphering a poem is like doing a crossword puzzle."

This analogy demeans the process of reading by comparing it to something mechanical;

the comparison may be partially appropriate, but it does not suggest the complexity of the
response one has to a poem.

A syllogism is a means of breaking down an argument into three simple, related terms:

1. All UVic students receive grades;

2. I am a UVic student; therefore
3. I receive grades.

There are three parts to a syllogistic argument. The major premise is the first, general
statement: "All UVic students receive grades." The minor premise is the second, specific
statement: "I am a UVic student." The conclusion is the logical resolution of the two
premises: "I receive grades." To be an effective argument, both premises of the syllogism
must be true, and they must also relate logically one to the other.

Arguments of this kind tend to fail because the general premise is not valid:

1. All students like pizza.

2. Hassan is a student, therefore
3. Hassan likes pizza.

The assumption that all students like pizza is invalid (if nearly true).

Improperly used, the syllogism is a handy device for producing charmingly erroneous
conclusions like this one:

1. Slugs crawl on the ground;

2. I can crawl on the ground; therefore
3. I am a slug.

While this conclusion may be true in a metaphorical sense, it does not follow logically
from the first two statements because the two premises are not logically connected.
Circular Argument
A circular argument makes a conclusion based on material that has already been
assumed in the argument:

"The study of literature is worthwhile because great literature repays close reading."

The argument sounds convincing until you realise that it could be phrased thus:

"The study of literature is worthwhile because literature is a worthwhile subject."

The statement does not raise an issue or allow for argument. A better argument would be

"The study of literature is worthwhile because it develops analytical and critical


Begging The Question

A begged question presents a proposition that needs to be proved as if it needs no proof:

`Binsey Poplars' is a bad poem because it is most irritating poem Hopkins ever wrote."

The writer of this sentence is begging the question of the irritating nature of the poem. A
better argument would be:

" `Binsey Poplars' suffers from a surfeit of literary devices."

The statement still expresses an opinion, but the more precise and objective language
suggests a way in which the writer can support the claim.

Argument Of The Beard

This is a paradoxical argument which derives from the impossibility of answering the
question "How many hairs does a man have to grow before he has a beard?" Since there
is no specific number at which an unsightly clump of hairs becomes a beard, the
argument is that no useful distinction can be made between a clean-shaven man and Santa

Another way of expressing the fallacy is in the argument that there is no harm in
removing one hair from a beard since it will not stop it being a beard; the argument is
superficially convincing until you realise that eventually the beard will indeed disappear,
even if it is plucked one hair at a time.
Thus the argument of the beard suggests that there is no difference between those things
which occupy opposite ends of a continuum, because there is no definable moment at
which one becomes the other: day and night, or childhood and adulthood, for example.
This fallacy often turns up in essays that discuss such subjects as the appropriate age for
drinking, voting, or driving.

Non Sequiturs
"It does not follow."

In this fallacy, the writer links two ideas or events that are not in fact related. TV
commercials often depend on visual or implied non sequiturs:

"I own a fast, red sports car; women love me."

A non sequitur of causation (Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, "after this, therefore because of
this") assumes that because one event followed another, it must have been the effect of
the other:

"When it rained, my food processor broke."

Fallacies Of Relevance
An argument ad hominem attacks the person supporting an opposing view instead of the
viewpoint itself:

"How can you believe this woman; she works for the government!"

The woman's employment may or may not have some bearing on what she is saying, but
you should not assume that she is wrong on that basis.

An argument ad populem does the reverse: it assumes that someone is correct because of
his or her position:

"If the Premier says so, it must be true."

Again, you should not assume that the Premier is telling the truth.

The appeal to authority is similar, in that it assumes that a prestigious person or

document must of necessity be right. Even Aristotle may be wrong about gravity, or the
Bible wrong about the circumference of a circle. Especially in literary essays, simply
quoting a well-known critic will not of itself support your argument; you must be
prepared for the sceptic who will question the pronouncements even of a Northrop Frye.
Name-calling is in a sense the opposite of the appeal to authority: it is the process of
placing what the writer dislikes or opposes into a generally odious category without
justifying the use of the terms. Conservatives call Liberals "Communists" while Liberals
call Conservatives "Fascists." Name-calling appeals to prejudice, not to rationality.

An argument ad misericordiam argues that something is true because if it is not,

someone will suffer:

"There must be a solution, because otherwise we will all perish!"

Unfortunately, this is usually not the case.

An appeal to force argues that a statement is true because physical harm will come to
those who disagree with it.

The most common fallacy of relevance is the bandwagon argument: "50,000,000 Elvis
Fans Can't Be Wrong!" This argument usually provokes the Bridge Question: "If
everybody jumped off the Johnson St. Bridge, would you do it too?" Remember that the
opinion of the majority is not always the one to accept.

Catchall Explanation
A catchall explanation provides one answer to a question with a variety of possible
answers and presents that answer as if it invalidates all the others:

Some people think the dinosaurs died out because of a meteor striking the earth. Some
people think they died out because of the coming of the Ice Age. And some people think
they died out because evolving mammals competed more successfully for available
resources. But new evidence proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the dinosaurs
became extinct because aliens poisoned their water supply.

The actual answer may be all, some, or none of the above. The writer should not assume
that the new theory renders the others obsolete.

Slanted Language
Most language in one way or another expresses an opinion as well as communicating
fact. If you wish to point out that a person saves money, you may choose a word like
thrifty--which signals approval of the activity--or "miserly"--which signals disapproval.
Either way your discussion will be "slanted" toward one judgment or the other.

That language communicates both fact and feeling is one of its great powers. There
would be no literature if it did not. Language only becomes "slanted" (deviating from the
upright) when it is deceptive or manipulative rather than persuasive. Propaganda--
political or commercial--slants language in an attempt to deceive the audience into
accepting a conclusion without question. But careful writers will be aware of the way
their language presents an opinion, and careful readers will be conscious of the often
deliberate slanting of language in the world around them.

We are appropriately wary of accepting information passed on to us from an unreliable

source. During the Gulf War of 1990, commentators regularly reminded viewers that
video materials coming from Iraq had been cleared by Iraqui censors. But we tend to be
less sensitive to the biases of our own point of view; as an example of politically slanted
language, the Manchester Guardian Weekly printed a list of words actually used in the
English press to describe the activities of the two sides in the war in the Persian Gulf: