What is or isn’t an Argument?

An argument is an attempt to justify a claim against a dispute. The disputable claim of the argument is the justification for why the argument is needed in the first place. There are usually giveaways that will help you identify an argument, or the lack of one.


Questions, jokes, stories, satire, humor, commands, mathematical and scientific fact, irony, ridicule, conditional statements of the “if A then B” form, exclamations, descriptions, explanations, and poems including song lyrics are not arguments.

It is rude to treat non-arguments as arguments when they are not. On the other hand, it is also rude to use non-arguments to dispute arguments. Rudeness does not discriminate: It goes both ways.


Arguments have premises and a conclusion. They can be presented in any order. There are giveaway words for both premises and conclusions.

Here are some giveaway words and phrases for premises. The technical term is “indicators of premises.” They mean “look out for the premise(s) to an argument.”

  • since
  • because
  • as indicated by
  • follows from
  • on the grounds that
  • whereas
  • wherefore
  • as shown by
  • given that
  • here is the proof

And here are some giveaway words and phrases for conclusions. In other words, these words and phrases mean “look out for the conclusion to an argument.”

  • therefore
  • thus
  • then
  • so
  • it follows that
  • in conclusion
  • we can conclude that
  • for this reasons we can see that
  • proves that
  • shows that
  • demonstrates that

Argument versus Explanation

Explanations follow the same format as arguments. They use many of the same indicators. Yet, according to Govier, they are not the same. (I am not sure if I agree with this, see below.) For instance, the following sentence is an explanation: “I didn’t turn in the homework. This is because I left it where the dog could get it and the dog ate it.” The next sentence, on the other hand, is an argument: “You should give me a break because I couldn’t turn in the homework after the dog ate it.”

Here is why I think that Explanation is a weak type of Argument. When treated as an argument, any explanation describes why a claim could or should be justified in at least one case. This establishes the claim as factual in at least one circumstance (sometimes true). So it’s impossible for someone to dispute the claim by stating the claim can never be true. Explanation cannot establish a claim as “always” factual, but it certainly covers the “some” territory.

And yet it is awfully rude to dispute someone’s explanatory personal story about his or her own life experiences. It’s hard to avoid mind-reading in such a dispute. And you wouldn’t want to become a rude, combative boor. So beware. Here be dragons.

This article is part of the Ars Argumentorum Series


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5 thoughts on “What is or isn’t an Argument?

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  2. The one part that does not make sense to me (that’s if we are trying to learn something here, lol), is those ‘code words’ used in the explanation. The word ‘because’ was used in the explanation, while the argument used a snotty, I deserve to get away with everything, attitude. lol. Just thought I’d bring that to whomever’s attention. 😉

  3. Also, just because someone leaves something in a place where the dog MAY eat it, does not make the case that the dog would or did. I don’t know if because is a good code word, because it is too often used. (That was my argument for it not to be a code word. I stated a fact. Is that an explanation? Yes. Is it an argument? Could be. Oh brother. Back to the drawing board.)

  4. Yes, the example could have been better. I was trying to demonstrate the difference between an explanation and an excuse, which is a kind of argument. The snotty attitude was just a lagniappe.

    “Because” is so very often used because it is so very useful. Is that circular reasoning? Or is it a proof that speakers of English are more argumentative than speakers of other languages? Or maybe that we have better “indicator” code words?

    Oh well, I’m bent on learning something here too. Back into the book.

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