What is an argument?
An argument, in the context of the GMAT, doesn’t involve screaming, yelling, name calling, or any shenanigans of the like. Simply, an argument is the presentation of an idea. The point of the argument is to convince someone of this idea—or at least make it sound feasible.
To know what an argument is, you need to know what it contains. In this article, I’d like to talk about some of the things that make an argument an argument. By looking at the parts of the argument, we’ll find out what it really is and how it will help you on the GMAT.
First and foremost, a conclusion is not an argument. I see these words used interchangeable sometimes. They are not the same thing. A conclusion is a part of the argument. It’s the reason that the argument exists. It’s the idea that the argument builds to, but that does not make it the same as an argument.
Another way to think of the conclusion—the thing that the author wants you to believe is true or feasible. Sometimes an argument is more like a plan and the aim is to institute some plan. If this is the case, the conclusion is the plan itself, the action to take. So ultimately, the conclusion is what the author is arguing for.
Most of what you see in an argument are premises. All the premises are there to support the conclusion. They exist to lend evidence and make us believe the conclusion.
All types of things can be premises too—facts, opinions, other conclusions, beliefs, statistics, studies, data, ideas, and interests. This might strike you as strange, and it should. How can an opinion or a belief support a conclusion? That’s an excellent question and an excellent thing to continue to think about heading into the test. This is a key point—the weaknesses of an argument lies in the premises. Not all premises are created equal and some are extremely weak supports for a conclusion. You’ll need to know this when weakening or strengthening an argument.
The last part of an argument is the hardest to spot because it’s actually not written. That’s right! An assumption, by definition, is something that is unstated. But an assumption is a fundamental part of an argument. It is all the other things that must be true in order for the conclusion to be true.
Since we can’t write down all the possible reasons for why a conclusion might be true, we leave a lot out. We assume that the reader or listener agrees on some basic ideas, and the writer or speaker leaves them out of what he or she writes or says. But since this is what is left out, since it is what is assumed, this is also another weakness in arguments.
Let’s look at a very simple argument to get a sense of the different parts.
I was taking a nap. After my nap, I went downstairs to the living room. The window in the living room was broken. I look outside and see kids playing baseball across the street. Those kids must have broken my window.
Alright, now let’s identify the parts of the argument:
- Premise 1: I was taking a nap.
- Premise 2: I went downstairs to the living room.
- Premise 3: The window is broken.
- Premise 4: I see kids playing baseball outside.
- Conclusion: Those kids broke my window.
As you can see the premises build towards the conclusion. Everything here is leading to the conclusion. You can see that there are no assumptions too. I haven’t included them because they are unstated. But I think that you can see what some of the assumptions must be.
- Assumption: An earthquake didn’t break the window.
- Assumption: A thief didn’t break the window.
- Assumption: The kids hit or threw the ball hard enough to break the window.
- Assumption: My son didn’t break the window when I was napping.
- Assumption: There must be a ball somewhere that broke the window.
- Assumption: …
- Assumption: …
- Assumption: …
And the assumptions can continue. I am sure you have thought of some that I left out. And that is excellent! The point is that arguments are full of assumptions.
In the End
Don’t use argument and conclusion interchangeably because they mean different things when it comes to the GMAT. Knowing the anatomy of an argument is a crucial skill not only for the GMAT, but for business and for life.
You need to be able to spot the conclusion a person is making and work backwards to see if their premises actually support the conclusion. I am willing to wager that more often than not the premises don’t support the conclusion.
Starting looking around. You are bound to find arguments in political statements, the evening news, a newspaper article, and an advertisement. We are surrounded by them and take them for granted. Doing so risks accepting fallacious conclusions. Having a fine tuned sense of arguments means you’ll think for yourself, develop a critical eye, and dominate the GMAT Critical Reasoning questions.