Formulating Valid Arguments

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the basic process for formulating an argument that is valid and supportable

The Process of Formulating an Argument

To format an argument, you should first choose your general topic (ex: American Industrial Revolution, 1800-1850), then the type of argument you would like to make (these will be covered in a moment), then narrow your subject from there to arrive at your broad argument (ex: “Eli Whitney’s cotton gin was the most important invention in American history”).

Poster showing the four types of arguments: historical/even figure argument about the impact or importance of a person or event; primary source interpretation argument, a debate with a primary source; a combination argument, argues about historical events or figures while also interpreting/evaluating primary sources; and historiographic/methodology argument, a debate with other historians.

Figure 1. Types of Arguments.

Once you have your broad argument, you can make it more specific using details: “Eli Whitney’s cotton gin was the most important invention in American economic history because it allowed the fast-growing textile industry to increase output, thereby turning the American economy into an export economy rather than an import economy.”)

Four Types of Historical Arguments

These four types of historical arguments are just the basics. There are nuances and variations on these forms, but these will help you get started:

  1. Historical Event/Figure Argument: This is an argument that addresses the influence or importance of a historical event or figure. This type of argument concerns interpretations of the magnitude or nature of the influence of an event or person. This type of argument can use primary and secondary sources since you are arguing about not only the contemporary importance of an event or person but also the lasting effects of that event or person on history.
  2. Primary Source Interpretation Argument: This type of argument is essentially a debate with a primary source. Here, the argument is made that the author of a particular primary source was mistaken in their interpretation of an event or idea. This type of argument is trickier because it requires you to place yourself in the shoes of the author. You cannot assume that a historical person had all the information you currently have and so you must look at things from their perspective and use resources that they would have had access to in their own time. 
    • For example: “Adam Smith’s The Principle of the Mercantile System argues that ‘it [the mercantile System] seems to consider production, and not consumption, as the ultimate end and object of all industry and commerce.’ This assumption about the mercantile system is misplaced considering the co-development of large-scale manufacturing and advertising.” This example argument would then be followed by an analysis of the development of advertising and how it disproves Smith’s assertion about the mercantile System. This type of argument should mostly rely on primary sources.   
  3. Combination Argument: An argument might be a combination of #1 and #2 if you are arguing the importance or influence of a Primary Source on historical events, people, or other Primary Sources. This is a common type of historical argument but requires a little more thought and research.
    • For example: You might argue that the content of the 1776 American Declaration of Independence was the heaviest influence on the content of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man, the document which helped to spark the French Revolution. This argument involves both an analysis of the historical influence and primary source interpretation.
  4. Historiographic/Methodology Argument: This type of argument deals with the interpretations of other historians on your subject. It mostly relies on secondary sources and debates the merits of certain types of primary source interpretation or analysis. 
    • For example: If Historian A has done a study which claims that Industrial Revolution-era women were content with the law of coverture based on letters written by middle-class housewives from Philadelphia, your argument might be that Historian A’s study is flawed because it does not include any documents written by working women, or women from other parts of the country, and so it cannot make the valid claim that all 19th-century American women accepted coverture.
    • This type of argument seeks to demonstrate that previous arguments on the subject have been inherently flawed or that previous interpretations have been incorrect. Sometimes these flaws are due to historian error or bias (like the exclusion of certain types of evidence), but sometimes flaws are due to the discovery of new evidence which refutes or disproves an earlier argument. ‘New evidence’ arguments are meant to simply reinterpret or build on previous studies in light of new discoveries. This type of argument is more complex and is well suited for more advanced history papers.

Try It

Worked Example: Formulating an Argument

Now let’s walk through the steps of formulating an argument together. This one is relatively easy. We already have a broad general topic from this module: the 19th century Industrial Revolution. For this example, we will use Primary Source Interpretation and specifically focus our topic on gender roles during the Industrial RevolutionTake this excerpt from the module Reader, Alexis de Tocqueville, How Americans Understand the Equality of the Sexes, 1840:


“American women never manage the outward concerns of the family or conduct a business or take a part in political life; nor are they, on the other hand, ever compelled to perform the rough labor of the fields or to make any of those laborious efforts which demand the exertion of physical strength. No families are so poor as to form an exception to this rule.”


In order to begin formulating an argument about this excerpt, ask yourself these questions. Answers do not necessarily have to be elaborate at this point.

They Say, I Say

Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein published a helpful book, They Say/I Say[1] that provides templates of actual language you could use in written arguments. The title of the book comes from the idea that writing is a form of joining an existing conversation—you find out what others are talking about, you add in your own two cents, and the conversation continues in various forms even after you leave. When writing, you are entering into a conversation with other scholars and other authors who have considered your same topic, so you can approach your paper by first considering what, “They say,” and then adding in your own, “I say” (without using the first person “I”). For example, in starting your argument, you could say something like:

  • X argues that…
  • X claims that…
  • X demonstrates that…

Then you could support or contradict those ideas with your own beliefs. Templates for joining in an ongoing discussion may look something like this:

  • In discussions of __________, one controversial issue has been ____________. On the one hand, ______________ argues __________________. On the other hand, ______________ opposes _____________. _________’s view is most accurate because of ___________ and __________.
  • When it comes to the topic of ________, most of ________ readily agree that __________. Where this agreement usually ends, however, is on the question of _____________. While some are convinced that _____________, others believe that _____________.

Other useful templates might look like this:

  • Although X says this, _________ makes a stronger argument.
  • The reasons X is ___________ are ____________, _____________, and _____________.

This often requires not only knowing about the person or event, but also anticipating potential counterarguments and controversies that might weaken your own argument. Now, it’s your turn to try creating an argument.


Try your hand at formulating an argument connected to a well-known figure. This can be a TV show character, a celebrity, an athlete, or a historical figure. Create a 1-2 sentence argument about that person using the “They say/I say” model listed above. For example, you could argue: “Many people find comic relief in Michael Scott’s character from The Office, but a closer look at Michael’s inflexible and narcissistic personality traits reveal that his character is far from funny, especially for those who can relate to unpleasant relationships with their bosses at work.” There is no correct answer here, but you can jot down your idea in the space below.


Worked Example: Supporting an Argument

Here is the argument we generated in our earlier example:

“Alexis de Tocqueville was incorrect in his assumption that American women did not have to perform physical labor. Since the fact that women did many forms of labor was readily available to anyone in any American city during the 1830s and 40s, it is likely that he omitted this information in order to propagandize his writing about American gender roles.”

Here are three specific, evidentiary examples which support this argument:

Try It

On the next page, you will learn to evaluate different perspectives and put them into action to formulate counterarguments.

  1. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, 3rd edition. New York: Norton, 2014.