As you compose an argument essay, you must anticipate your audience’s objections. The ability to refute opposition in an argument essay is a key element in a successful essay.
Some writers make the mistake of introducing a weak or silly opposition to make it easier to refute. But this actually weakens the writer’s argument. Introducing the strongest point of opposition and strongly refuting it with a well thought-out response serves to make the writer’s position stronger.
Who is Your Audience?
The first step for creating a strong opposition section is to thoroughly understand your audience. Who are they? Where are they on the scale of opposition? Are they against your entire argument, or only against a few points?
Will They Oppose Your Argument?
How can you anticipate what the opposition might be? It’s always a good idea at this stage to get some peer feedback, as your peers might be a good source of opposing views. Ask your peers what their responses are to your argument to gain a clearer understanding of differing viewpoints.
As you introduce opposition, take care to be respectful of the other side’s opinions. Put yourself in the other side’s shoes. Coming across as disrespectful or failing to take the opposition seriously is a sure way to make your own argument seem weak.
Let’s consider the argument below and how you might include opposition:
Argument: Schools should move to a year round curriculum
Reason: because students lose much of the previous year’s information and must be re-taught, wasting precious time and resources.
For the reason stated above, the opposition may disagree the contention that information is lost and must be retaught. In fact, the opposition may state that studies on year-round schools have been inconclusive regarding the academic benefits.
Now that there is a clear statement of opposition, it’s your turn to rebut, or reinforce your point – that schools should move to a year round curriculum because students lose much of the previous year’s information and must be re-taught.
Opposition = Faulty Assumption
If the opposition states that the research in inconclusive, this is your opportunity to show strong, valid research that does support a year-round curriculum on the basis of lost information over the long break. You will argue that the opposition has based their argument on a faulty assumption — that research shows there is no benefit. The opposition/rebuttal paragraph would look something like this:
Those against changing our current 9-month school calendar to year-round,is that there has been no conclusive research that supports that it has any academic benefit. However, this is untrue. Researchers at Chimi-Changa Education Labs have done extensive studies focusing on the effectiveness of year-round schools, and their conclusions show an increase in learning in all areas of study. “The students we have tested in districts who have implemented year-round curriculum show higher test scores in math, reading, and science from those students in traditional 9-month districts,” says Sam Smith, Chair of Curriculum Design at Chimi-Changa.
Note the highlighted transitional cue word, “However.” This is a cue word that indicates that you are now stating your rebuttal, or disagreement with the opposition.
Conceding to Opposition
Often, the opposition has a very valid disagreement against your position, so valid that it might cause you to rethink your position. Instead of changing your thesis, consider conceding the point. By conceding to their point, or agreeing that the opposition has a strong argument, you are positioning yourself as respectful and are more likely to gain the audience’s trust. This is not only respectful, but also a great opportunity to drive home your own points to re-emphasize your argument.
Concession & Rebuttal:
Those against year-round school argue that the costs of running many of the aging buildings year-round are too high. While it is true that keeping schools open throughout the year may cost more, the higher costs could be subsidized by making the buildings available for community rental to offset those costs.
As you can see by the previous example, the opposition has a valid point. By conceding this point is actually true and then responding with a strong rebuttal — an alternative to offset the high costs — the writer’s position becomes even stronger. The cue words, “while it is true” lets the reader know the writer is conceding, but will refute this idea.
As you can see, a lot of thought and planning must go into building your argument and considering how the opposition may disagree with you. Consider what points of your argument may garner the strongest debate, and carefully think through how you will counter those who will disagree with you. A respectful and well thought-out response will put you on the path toward a successful argument!
Published by E. Mack
Writing Center Underground is supported by Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska and maintained by Elizabeth Mack, Writing Center consultant. The Writing Center, staffed by experienced English teachers and writing consultants, provides professional assistance and outreach programs to help students and faculty with written communication across the disciplines and beyond. Simply stated, the Writing Center is a place into which writers invite other writers to dialogue about writing. View all posts by E. Mack
When you write an academic essay, you make an argument: you propose a thesis and offer some reasoning, using evidence, that suggests why the thesis is true. When you counter-argue, you consider a possible argument against your thesis or some aspect of your reasoning. This is a good way to test your ideas when drafting, while you still have time to revise them. And in the finished essay, it can be a persuasive and (in both senses of the word) disarming tactic. It allows you to anticipate doubts and pre-empt objections that a skeptical reader might have; it presents you as the kind of person who weighs alternatives before arguing for one, who confronts difficulties instead of sweeping them under the rug, who is more interested in discovering the truth than winning a point.
Not every objection is worth entertaining, of course, and you shouldn't include one just to include one. But some imagining of other views, or of resistance to one's own, occurs in most good essays. And instructors are glad to encounter counterargument in student papers, even if they haven't specifically asked for it.
The Turn Against
Counterargument in an essay has two stages: you turn against your argument to challenge it and then you turn back to re-affirm it. You first imagine a skeptical reader, or cite an actual source, who might resist your argument by pointing out
- a problem with your demonstration, e.g., that a different conclusion could be drawn from the same facts, a key assumption is unwarranted, a key term is used unfairly, certain evidence is ignored or played down;
- one or more disadvantages or practical drawbacks to what you propose;
- an alternative explanation or proposal that makes more sense.
You introduce this turn against with a phrase like One might object here that... or It might seem that... or It's true that... or Admittedly,... or Of course,... or with an anticipated challenging question: But how...? or But why...? or But isn't this just...? or But if this is so, what about...? Then you state the case against yourself as briefly but as clearly and forcefully as you can, pointing to evidence where possible. (An obviously feeble or perfunctory counterargument does more harm than good.)
The Turn Back
Your return to your own argument—which you announce with a but, yet, however, nevertheless or still—must likewise involve careful reasoning, not a flippant (or nervous) dismissal. In reasoning about the proposed counterargument, you may
- refute it, showing why it is mistaken—an apparent but not real problem;
- acknowledge its validity or plausibility, but suggest why on balance it's relatively less important or less likely than what you propose, and thus doesn't overturn it;
- concede its force and complicate your idea accordingly—restate your thesis in a more exact, qualified, or nuanced way that takes account of the objection, or start a new section in which you consider your topic in light of it. This will work if the counterargument concerns only an aspect of your argument; if it undermines your whole case, you need a new thesis.
Where to Put a Counterargument
Counterargument can appear anywhere in the essay, but it most commonly appears
- as part of your introduction—before you propose your thesis—where the existence of a different view is the motive for your essay, the reason it needs writing;
- as a section or paragraph just after your introduction, in which you lay out the expected reaction or standard position before turning away to develop your own;
- as a quick move within a paragraph, where you imagine a counterargument not to your main idea but to the sub-idea that the paragraph is arguing or is about to argue;
- as a section or paragraph just before the conclusion of your essay, in which you imagine what someone might object to what you have argued.
But watch that you don't overdo it. A turn into counterargument here and there will sharpen and energize your essay, but too many such turns will have the reverse effect by obscuring your main idea or suggesting that you're ambivalent.
Counterargument in Pre-Writing and Revising
Good thinking constantly questions itself, as Socrates observed long ago. But at some point in the process of composing an essay, you need to switch off the questioning in your head and make a case. Having such an inner conversation during the drafting stage, however, can help you settle on a case worth making. As you consider possible theses and begin to work on your draft, ask yourself how an intelligent person might plausibly disagree with you or see matters differently. When you can imagine an intelligent disagreement, you have an arguable idea.
And, of course, the disagreeing reader doesn't need to be in your head: if, as you're starting work on an essay, you ask a few people around you what they think of topic X (or of your idea about X) and keep alert for uncongenial remarks in class discussion and in assigned readings, you'll encounter a useful disagreement somewhere. Awareness of this disagreement, however you use it in your essay, will force you to sharpen your own thinking as you compose. If you come to find the counterargument truer than your thesis, consider making it your thesis and turning your original thesis into a counterargument. If you manage to draft an essay without imagining a counterargument, make yourself imagine one before you revise and see if you can integrate it.
Copyright 1999, Gordon Harvey (adapted from The Academic Essay: A Brief Anatomy), for the Writing Center at Harvard University