Standard Argument Form
To analyze an argument is to do an “active listening” step. The point is to make sure you understand what the argument actually is before turning to the evaluative question: is it a good argument?
Standard argument form is a graphical method for displaying arguments, making plain the purpose of a statement by its placement. Premises are separated, numbered, and placed above a line, and the conclusion is placed below the line. The act of inference is represented with three dots (or the word “so”) placed next to the conclusion.
Some cases are straightforward. Here is a passage, followed by the analysis into standard form.
I have a dental cleaning scheduled for June fourth. Wow, since today is the third, I guess that means the appointment is for tomorrow.
Issue: Is my dental cleaning tomorrow?
1) My dental cleaning is scheduled for the fourth.
2) Today is the third.
SO: my dental cleaning is tomorrow.
The explicit indicator word is “since.” The premise follows that indicator. The conclusion is in the clause following the comma.
If we straightened the sentence, it would read:
The appointment is for tomorrow since today is the third.
This follows a classic pattern:
(Conclusion) since (premise.)
Note: in the analysis, the words “I guess” were left out. These words signal a thinking process is happening, and can also signal how much conviction the thinker has in their own thinking. “I guess” signals a lack of confidence. If the passage had said, “that means my appointment must be tomorrow,” a higher degree of confidence would be signaled. In general, these confidence-signaling words and phrases are not themselves part of the argument.
Here is another example:
If we want to increase defense spending, we would have to either cut domestic programs or raise taxes. You know when conservatives are in control, they aren’t going to raise taxes. So, the increase in defense spending means a cut to domestic programs, for sure.
Issue: Will increased defense spending mean a cut to domestic programs?
1) To increase defense spending requires cutting domestic spending or increasing taxes.
2) Conservatives are in control.
3) Taxes won’t be increased when conservatives are in control.
SO: an increase in defense spending means a cut to domestic programs.
This analysis is more complicated, but the first step is spotting the indicator word “so.” This gives us a clue that the last sentence is the conclusion. We then articulate the issue by putting the conclusion in the form of a question. The statements preceding the conclusion indicator are premises.
We could treat this passage as listing only two premises since the premises are presented in two separate sentences. But for purposes of evaluation, it is better to list more instead of fewer premises. It allows a greater chance for finding common ground among people coming to an issue from different points of view.
Note: the phrase “for sure” in the original passage signals the thinker has a high degree of confidence in their thinking. It was left out when putting the argument into standard form.
Standard Form Examples
Most people don’t like to be lied to. So, if you lie to someone, and they find out, they are probably not going to like it.
Issue: How do people react to be being lied to?
1) Most people don’t like to be lied to
SO: if you lie to someone, they are not going to like it.
I am working full time and going to school full time, so you know I don’t get enough sleep!
Issue: Do I get enough sleep?
1) I am working full time
2) I am going to school full time
SO: I don’t get enough sleep.