What is NOT an Argument: Straight Talk about Critical Thinking

Written by Argumentful


  1. Summary
  2. Explanation
  3. Description
  4. Disagreement

Imagine this situation: in a parallel universe you are stuck in a maze, meant to stop your friends from entering a building full of zombies. There is a catch: for you to get out of the maze and connect with your friends, you have a logical quiz to solve. What does the quiz entail – you ask? You have to find the non-arguments in a text which is 20 pages long. There is another catch: you only have ten minutes to complete this task. How would you go about this?

Thinking Critically: Why Is It Important to Recognise Non-Arguments?

It’s important to be able to recognise non-arguments so that you can effectively move to the essential part of a text: the argument(s). Depending on the language, style of writing, cultural factors and type of text, you’ll find that many arguments are surrounded by supporting information, such as summaries, explanations, descriptions or disagreements. Recognizing these types of material quickly, allows you to allocate more time towards finding and analysing the argument. You might recognise the situation where your paper didn’t score as high as you’d like and your professor’s notes read something like this: “irrelevant information used” or “not enough critical analysis done on arguments”. I’m not saying that explanations, descriptions or summaries are to be ignored while analysing a text, only that the actual arguments need to be given more time and attention than other elements are. Additionally, when you choose a certain part of a text to reference, you can bring more value to your writing if your citation points toward an argument.

So what are the non-arguments and how can we find them?

Being an Alert Critical Thinker: Recognizing Types of Non-Argument

Non-arguments are parts of texts that authors choose to include in order to clarify certain aspects or bring more details around specific ideas. Because they might include similar elements as arguments do, they could be confused with arguments.

Knowing the different types of non-arguments can help you be on the lookout for these.

1. Summary

Definition of Summary:

The summary is a brief statement or account of the most important points of a topic.

Summaries could use different words to rephrase key information which was already presented. In this case you might find them at the end of a passage, repeating information previously laid out. It is not typical for a summary to introduce any new information.

Example of Summary

Here is an example of a summary:

One of the elements which could drive confusion between summaries and arguments could be the connecting words used by both: “therefore”, “as such”, “thus”, “hence” etc. These are typically used to draw a conclusion in an argument, but can also be used in summaries. So, don’t make the mistake of assuming there is an argument just because of the presence of these phrases.

As with many rules, there is an important exception to be aware of: there is a specific type of summary which can help optimize the way you analyse academic texts, and I’m sure you’ve already come across this: the abstract.

In academic writing summaries are introduced at the beginning and are called abstracts. They contain the main argument of the paper, as well as the most important contributing reasons that support this argument. It can be very useful to glance over the abstract first, in order to pick-up the main argument made by the author. Nevertheless, for a complete analysis, you will need to go into more detail afterwards to closely examine the claims and supporting reasons given for these.

Here is an example of an abstract from an academic paper:

The conclusion of an academic paper can also be helpful: the conclusion is intended to help the reader understand why the research should matter to them after they have finished reading the paper. A conclusion is not just a summary of earlier presented points or a re-statement of the research problem but a synthesis of key points. Now you might wonder about the difference between summary and synthesis. Well, wonder no more: synthesis is the combination of components or elements to form a connected whole. The key phrase here is “connected whole”- all the points are linked logically together.

Check out this conclusion below from the same study:

So while summaries can be quite useful to re-state key points, they can also generate some confusion and be mistakenly interpreted as arguments. Be on the lookout for connecting words and don’t let them mislead you!

2. Explanation

Definition of Explanation

It’s quite easy to mistake an explanation for an argument because sometimes it does look like an argument. They often have similar structures as arguments, containing assertions and reasons which guide the reader towards a conclusion. Not to mention that they could use the same connecting phrases as arguments do: therefore, for this reason, in consequence, etc.

So how do we discern if we’re dealing with an argument or an explanation? The secret is the intention, or the purpose: is the material trying to convince of an idea or persuade to take an action? Then it’s an argument. Is it aiming to illustrate why or how something happens or explain the meaning of a concept, hypothesis or theory? Then it’s an explanation.

Example of Explanation

Here is an example of an explanation (from a New York Times article):

3. Description

Definition of Description

Description is a spoken or written account of a person, object, or event.

Unlike the explanation, the description does not aim to clarify why or how something happens, rather, it just lists how something is done or what something is like.

A good example in academic writing would be one where an author describes the steps taken within an experiment, without making any judgements, interpretations or drawing any conclusions.

A useful analogy to discriminate between an explanation and a description is that of the thinking self versus the observing self: the thinking self is that part of the mind which makes judgments, interprets, tries to find explanations. The observing self is completely accepting and non-judgmental, always observing but never evaluating or examining.

The way to distinguish between a description and an argument is the same as for explanations: look at the purpose. The description’s aim is to inform and offer a wider context, not to convince or persuade.

When using descriptions in academic writing it’s a good idea to keep them factual, succinct and without judgment.

Example of Description

Here is an example of a description- what immune cells do when they encounter a pathogen (from the same article as above):

4. Disagreement

Definition of Disagreement

To be able to understand the difference between an argument and a disagreement, we need to acknowledge the different stands which are taken when two or more people debate an issue:

Position– this is a point of view but without any reasons provided

Agreement– agreeing with someone’s opinion without providing any reasons

Disagreement– disagreeing with someone’s opinion without providing any reasons

Argument– using reasons to support a point of view. Although argument may include disagreement, it is more than that, as it includes reasons for disagreement.

Example of Disagreement

Here is an example:

So there you have it: four types of material which are non-arguments. Did you find any other examples in your reading which challenged you to apply your critical thinking skills in order to separate the argument from other types of information?

Let us know in the comments.

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