Constructing Arguments



constructingargumentsWhat is an argument? We know that arguments form the backbone of a Debater’s stand on a particular motion. We also know that the arguments are directed to the judges with the intent of making them agree with a particular stance on the motion. Thus, arguments are communications directed at judges with the intent of influencing them. An argument is best opened with a label, which highlights what the argument is about. After that, the speakers will have to give an explanation, using logical links, as to why their position is correct. Next, they will have to use examples to prove that their explanation and links apply to real life. Finally, they will link the argument back to the motion. The flow of the arguments should look like this:

Label of Argument


Explanation and logic


Primary Example

(This is the most salient or obvious example to support your argument.)


Link example to logic


Secondary Example

(This is intended as a follow up to the primary example to show a trend or pattern developing. This is also to avoid allowing the other team to say that you are using an isolated example.)


Link to the Motion

The Label


The label should immediately identify what the argument is and how it relates to the motion. It should encapsulate the argument to follow within a single sentence and make it clear at the start of the argument what the speaker will elaborate on.

To ensure that a label is representative of the argument and addresses the motion, a good tip is to connect the label to the motion using the word “because” and see if the sentence still makes sense. For example, a speaker wishes to argue in favour of the death penalty based on its value to the justice system in deterring crime and considers the following three labels:

a.     Justice

b.     Value to Justice system

c.     Deters crime.

An application of the test above readily shows which label is the best. “THW support the death penalty because of justice” does not make too much sense. “THW support the death penalty because of its value to the justice system” makes more sense. However, it remains vague. “THW support the death penalty because it deters crime” will be the best approach, since it clearly signals that the ensuring argument will be.


Tip on Pre-labels

Some debaters use “pre-labels” for stylistic purposes. This will involve the use of quotes or phrases with a flourish to introduce the argument.  For instance, an argument on the dangers of technology may be pre-labelled as the “Rage against the Machine” point and an argument on nuclear disarmament could be pre-labelled as “Turning Swords into Plowshares.” This technique is perfectly acceptable as long as the speakers

a. do not waste time doing so, and

b. remember to use an actual label immediately after the pre-label.


The Explanation and Links:


The explanation is the most critical part of the argument, where the speaker outlines the key reasons why the motion stands or falls. The most effective means of convincing judges that a particular argument is valid is to demonstrate that the argument is universal. This means that the explanation of the argument is usually done in theory and in principle. The proof will then be applied to this theory later on in the examples.

The best way to make the logic of the argument clear is to “walk” the audience and the judges through the logic step by step. By showing the “links” in these steps clearly, the debaters are able to establish that the argument stands. Within most debates, debaters seek to show that the subject of the debate,  such as globalization or environmental protection, leads to a certain outcome, such as the developing world growing more prosperous.

Furthermore, the debater will need to show that it is a certain aspect, trait or characteristic of the subject, such as globalization’s transfer of technology or environmental protection’s ability to protect agriculture, which leads to the predicted outcome. To summarise this flow of events based on the example of capital punishment, the debater shows that:


Link A

Subject has a particular trait (causal factor)

Death penalty involves death

Link B

The trait leads to a certain outcome

Death scares people

Link C

The outcome leads to the desired effect

People deterred from committing crime through fear


Motion is proved

Death Penalty thus should be supported


It can be seen that Link C in fact also serves as the label of the argument. A proper argument will always come back to the label already established. Some cases may have more links in the argument set but will generally follow this framework.


The Examples

Arguments are only theories until they can be supported by examples. Examples show that the argumentation applies to the real world and that there is precedence for the case being made by the debaters. Without examples within a debate, it will be very difficult for a Debater to score high on content.


Types of Examples

Prominent Case

This is the most common type of example used in debate and makes use of a famous incident or case to support the argument. For instance, in arguing about the dangers of nuclear power due to the high risks of meltdowns, the debaters will cite the case of Chernobyl. These examples are easily recognized by the judges and audience and readily help to make the argument appear more real and vivid.



Trends & Statistics

This technique involves the use of a series of cases or statistics to showcase a trend. For instance, to showcase the dangers of nuclear power, debaters can cite how many nuclear accidents had taken place over the last two decades. Debaters will have to be precise with the statistics used here, as judges and opponents are well aware of the possibility that the statistics may have been made up.


Proof by authority

This method resorts to the use of authority figures within a related field to support the argument. For instance, to show that nuclear power is dangerous, debaters may cite studies conducted by the Nuclear Energy Institute or the International Atomic Energy Agency. Using such examples could be problematic if the opponents are able to cast doubt on the credibility of the “experts.” Furthermore, in most cases, only the opinions and findings of these experts are reflected, and they may not be historically verifiable facts.


Proof by analogy

This technique makes reference to another subject with similar traits in order to support the argument. For instance, nuclear power could be compared to crude oil in that both will damage the environment if released into the open. This approach is useful when trying to explain a particularly diffcult argument and a simplication will help to get the idea across better. However, this approach can always be attacked by an opponent showing that these two examples are not the same and are not related. Thus, this technique should only be used as a last resort.


Hypothetical examples

These refers to the use of possible scenarios to try to support the arguments. For instance, the speaker outlines the dangers of nuclear technology by stating that it could destroy all of humanity. However, since this is only a hypothesis, it is difficult to use it to support an argument.




Do’s and Don’ts of Examples


Do Have Variety

Many debaters stick to a certain region or timeframe for examples during a debate. They should avoid doing this. For instance, a team should not only cite examples from the United States. They should give examples from various countries to show that their argument is universal.

Do Use New Examples

Many debaters re-use examples that were already used by their teammates. This should be avoided as they will not get high enough content scores based on their inability to produce new examples.

Don’t Use Examples as Logic

Some speakers go directly to the example when arguing without having the principal logic point articulated first. This allows the opponents to just attack the example easily in order to defeat the argument.

Don’t Lead with Examples

Some speakers begin the argument with examples and then try to follow them up with the logic links. This method tends to be problematic as the lack of time at the end sometimes forces the argumentative points to be dropped.

Do Explain Examples

Some debaters merely name the examples and then move on, assuming that the judges will automatically know what the example refers to. This again will lead to a lack of content scores because the Debaters have yet to demonstrate how the examples actually work and if they actually support the argument.


Link to Motion


At the conclusion of each argument, Debaters should link the point back to the motion. This will allow the Debaters to establish the relevance of the argument to the motion and demonstrate that these are not being raised in a vacuum. Judges will thus see that the speakers are able to show not only that the points raised are valid on their own but that they support or oppose the motion as well.

For instance, in a debate about the censorship of the arts, a speaker cannot just deliver an argument on the importance of free speech and leave it hanging. There is a need to show that free speech is important and that censorship of the arts will lead to the violation of this particular right. In debates where the link back to the motion had been absent, it is often not surprising to find that the debaters are unable even to recall the exact words of the motion.


Special Section on Different Analysis Paradigms in Constructive



by Hygin Fernandez, Co-Coach, Anglo-Chinese Junior College Debate Team 2011


What is a constructive/substantive?

It is an argument used to further your side’s case during a debate. It is an idea that is fully explained and elaborated to such an extent that it proves or disproves the motion. A good substantive, is succinct, clear and utilises a depth of analysis.


This means you don’t waste too much time with unnecessary words, your chain of logic is straightforward and the usage of this logic is coupled together with an analysis of the point in the context of the motion. For example, in a motion about smoking, ideas with regards to its addictive nature will help you further a point about how it is bad for long term health. This is analysis.


How to come up with a constructive/substantive?

  1. Think about the issues related to the motion
  2. Think about the individuals/societies/groups related to the motion
  3. Think about the ramifications of the motion to individuals/societies/groups
  4. Put your mind through the processes the motions entails
    1. E.g.  THBT terrorism is justified, put yourselves in the processes of terrorism.
    2. Why are you doing it?
    3. Why is it necessary?
    4. Why is it justifiable to you (you = a personification of the motion)?
  5. Consider the possible impact in the following spheres: Social, Political, Economics, Environment, Regional, Medical, etc.


DISCLAIMER: This is not the only way to categorise substantives. It shouldn’t be a textbook from which you memorise and apply to all situations. Rather use it as a way to understand the basics so that more advance methods of analysis will come to you quicker by means of experience and practise.


Types of Constructive/Substantive


Logical analysis


Policy analysis


Comparison analysis


Time analysis




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