Topic 34 – Argumentative texts. structure and characteristics

Topic 34 – Argumentative texts. structure and characteristics

In this topic I am going to deal with the argumentative text, its structure and characteristics. I have divided my presentation into three different sections. In my first section I am going to explain what has to be taken into account in order to say that a certain stretch of language is a text. The second one will be about the different types of texts, because, in order to clarify what an argumentative text is, I am going to start by saying what it is not. And finally, my third section will be about the argumentative text itself.

Let’s start with a definition of text. A text may be defined as “a stretch of language, spoken or written, of whatever length, which forms a unified whole”. However, we should ask ourselves: “What makes a stretch of language form a unified whole and, therefore, be a text?” Seven criteria or standards are given for textuality, that is, criteria that a sequence of sentences must meet in order to qualify as a text:

  • Cohesion is the connection which results when the interpretation of a textual element is dependent on another element in the text.

The store no longer sold porcelain figures. It used to…

The interpretation of “it” is dependent on that of “store”, and the interpretation of “used to” is dependent on “sold porcelain figures”.

  • Coherence is the connection which is brought about by something outside the text. This “something” is usually knowledge which a listener or reader is assumed to possess. The best way to illustrate coherence is giving an example of incoherence. Chomsky gave the following example: Colourless green ideas sleep furiously. The listener’s knowledge tells him that the utterance is non-sensical.
  • Intentionality means that writes and speakers must have the conscious intention of achieving specific goals with their message, for instance, conveying information or arguing an opinion.
  • Acceptability requires that a sequence of sentences be acceptable to the intended audience in order to qualify as a text. For instance, for a teacher it is not acceptable to be told: “You sit down and shut up”.
  • Informativeness is necessary in discourse. A text must contain new information. If a reader knows everything contained in a text, then it does not qualify. Likewise, if a reader does not understand what is in a text, it also does not qualify as a text.
  • Situationality is essential to textuality. It is important to consider the situation in which the text has been produced and dealt with. For instance, you don’t speak about football in church.
  • Intertextuality means that a sequence of sentences is related by form or meaning to other sequences of sentences. For instance, a chapter is a text related to other chapters of a book.

In order to be regarded as a text, any stretch of language must meet all these standards. However, not all texts are the same. Primarily monologic spoken or written discourse may be organized in ways that reveal similar underlying “templates” or “scripts”. Those which have the same or very similar template may be said to belong to a particular “genre” or type of text. Part of a speaker’s communicative competence involves the ability to recognize and manipulate the features of a particular type of text. There are four main genres which are usually mentioned by genre analysts as distinct types: narrative, descriptive, explanatory, which can be either expository or procedural, and argumentative texts. Although these may exist in different languages, there may be important differences between their templates, and in the kind of language that is typically present in each.

Before concentrating on what argumentative texts are, I would like to show what they are not, by giving an overview of the three other text types. An argumentative text is different from a narrative. Narratives are written when people want to give information about an event or a sequence of events, typically in the past. Narrative texts have the following components: an abstract (e.g. title), the orientation, the goal, the problem, steps to resolve the problem, the resolution or climax and the coda. The language typically associated with it is time and place indicators, copula sentences, presentatives, identifying or descriptive relative clauses. The verbs are usually stative or intransitive. There is a sequence of temporally ordered clauses and actions.

An argumentative text is also different from an explanatory text (expository or procedural). The procedural text can be defined as the “how to” discourse, i.e. explains how to do something. Procedural discourse normally consists of a set or ordered steps which will be marked with enumerative or temporal markers. Goals will be expressed in terms of purpose or result which can be accompanied by illustrations. Typically the agent is neutral and imperative or passive constructions will be used. On the other hand, an expository text gives a simple explanation of an idea or fact; defines a concept from an objective point of view and summarise a series of ideas or facts. Some key language used is existential clauses, additive connectors, relative clauses or cohesive devices among others.

Finally, an argumentative text is not a descriptive one, because a descriptive text is defined by being a spoken or written representation or account of a person, object, or event that can both be connotative or denotative. The former happens when the writer reflects what is suggested to him/her by the object presented to the reader, independently of whether s/he adjusts the description to reality. Literary writing is characterised amongst other things, by connotative description, in which subjective sensations are transmitted. The latter happens when the author adopts an impartial attitude towards what s/he describes; limiting himself or herself to carefully detail the characteristics which best define the object. Scientific writing, for example, is distinguished by its denotative or objective descriptions, due to the universal character that science possesses.

However, any piece of discourse can have details of each type of text. For instance, narration and description complement and combine with each other in literary works. It is impossible to narrate with brilliance and effectiveness without possessing a great sense of observation and description.

Thus, once I have cleared what argumentative texts are NOT, it is time for me to go on to the third section of my presentation, where I will give an account of what argumentative texts are, what argumentative texts are like as well as an account of their main characteristics.

I will divide this area into three different sections; first, I will give a brief account on the argumentative genre, attending to the rhetorical genre analysis theory. Secondly, I will give the structure for argumentative texts in English. Thirdly, I will give a brief account on the typical language found in argumentative texts, and finally, I will speak about the problems Spanish students may encounter when studying argumentative texts in the English Language class.

Stemming from the definition of argumentation as the process of weakening or supporting another statement whose validity is questionable or contentious, the structure of argumentative texts is the most flexible of the aforementioned four types of texts. The classical description of this type of text is: introduction, explanation of case under consideration, outline of the argument, proof, refutation, and conclusion. Sometimes, some of the elements may not appear. The most widely used structure of an argumentative text is:

o Presentation of argument, where the writer presents the topic, opinion, problem, etc to be discussed. The writer also states his/her view, which may involve presenting a counter or contrastive argument, as well as he includes facts and information to illustrate these ideas or arguments.

o Evidence, where the writer supports his/her argument with evidence such as facts, reasons, possible consequences and so on.

o Conclusion, where the writer summarises arguments and draws conclusions.

o Instruction, where the writer offers additional comments if needed and adds suggestions for future action.

However, there are many variations on this, and there is a tendency, particularly in the expression of strongly held opinions, to adopt other strategies of organization, which adopt the alternate presentation of contrasting views (zig-zag pattern). The writer in these cases will tend to end with the view s/he defends.

Another common pattern is outline of the problem, refutation of the opposition argument followed by a solution.

Skilled readers follow the elements of the argument (locating author’s main claims, the opposition’s arguments, concessions and refutations) through recognition of the overall structure of the text as well as through an awareness and recognition of discourse markers that point clearly to the author’s position such as it is often thought…. But; a common assumption…; however…; indeed…; in fact…; actually…

Thus, when asked to express opinion of a topic, this usually involves making a general statement in which the writer expresses his/her opinion about a topic, developing it by giving examples or further information, and coming to a conclusion. In argumentation the writer often has to discuss two or more contrasting opinions, so he may need language to present both sides equally, discussing the advantages or the disadvantages of either argument, or to take sides and state his/her view, providing evidence in order to convince his/her readers.

Once described the structure of argumentative texts, I will go on to show the kind of language that is usually used when producing an argumentative text.

On the one hand, when the writer expresses opinions s/he should be able to introduce comments which reflect his/her attitude towards the topic, that is to say, he/she should be able to use attitude markers such as disjuncts like In my opinion. On the other hand, he also should be able to add arguments or present further evidence, supporting his/her opinion by giving examples or establishing comparisons. That is to say, he/she should be able to use additive connectors such as conjuncts like In addition, or in the same way…Moreover, s/he should be able to express a contrasting opinion or fact by using contrastive connectors, conjuncts like however.

Besides, s/he should also describe reasons, purposes or possible consequences of an action or situation, as well as conditions involved by the usage of casual connectors, conjuncts such as, for instance, as a result. The last part of argumentative texts often requires summarizing ideas or evidence, and drawing conclusions with the usage of sequential connectors such as in short, for instance.

The author of an argumentative text has to involve the reader in his/her line of argumentation by using, for instance, words like the inclusive we, the impersonal one or the possessive our as in the following example: However, we must also be understanding.

And finally, s/he should offer comments and give suggestions for further actions with the use of the potential would as follows in the example: In such circumstances one would have to look elsewhere.

Argumentative texts are characterized by the use of declarative verbs to introduce statements (say, claim, think, belief…), which appear in the present tense. This is an essential device to convince the reader of the truth of the writer’s statements. We often find neutral vocabulary, and emphatic adjectives and adverbs, such as clearly, decisive and so on.

Finally, once exposed the basic facts about argumentation and the argumentative genre, the structure of argumentative texts and the language found un such kind of texts, I am going now to focus on the problem a learner encounters when dealing with argumentative texts. The learner faces two major problems in becoming proficient in coding, decoding and producing this type of text. Firstly, the argumentative text requires considerable maturity (the ability to recognize and acknowledge other points of view), which is rarely present before age 13 (and in some cases never developed, according to research in the US). Teaching aimed at developing competence in this genre can help learners by giving time to the pooling of ideas, discussion of alternative points of view, etc (Role-play may be of great use here).

Secondly, major differences may exist between L1 and L2 realisations of an argument. For example, the one-sided argument is frowned upon in English, whereas it may be acceptable in other cultures. Similarly, the use of particular rhetorical devices (for example, rhetorical questions) may be used differently and be distributed in different ways in L1 and L2 texts. However, the tendency will be to transfer the L1 rhetoric to the L2. Highlighting of differences and focusing on salient features of L2 argumentative text will help to offset this tendency. Good sources for authentic argumentative texts, which will often be of topical interest, are the editorial pages of the quality newspapers.

To sum up, this topic has dealt with the argumentative text, its structure and characteristics, and I have divided it into three different sections to clarify the information as much as possible, being this sections an introductory reference to the concept of text, what an argumentative text is not, and finally, what an argumentative text is, taking into account not only its concept but also its common structures, the exceptional ones, the language found in it, and the problems that foreign students of English encounter when presented with them.