What's the best way to address counterarguments in a persuasive essay without weakening my own position?


Calvin Olsen, College Professor, Poet, and Editor

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There is some great advice on here (which is proof that you’ve asked an excellent question), and although I’m a little late to the game, here’s a more specific formula for building a counterargument into your essay. When I teach a writing course, I require counterarguments in every paper over four pages. The best approach to a counterargument is called “Acknowledgement and Response.”

Some people worry that a counterargument undermines their argument, but as you’ve learned in the other responses here such is not the case. The trick is to prove that you know your stuff—you’ve done your homework and you are aware of how your particular argument fits in the grand scheme of things. As you do this, you gain the trust of your reader/audience, which is why Acknowledgement is so important. Give your naysayers credit: they’re not stupid, and they’re not uninformed, so their side of the argument is as valid as yours. To acknowledge them, you simply let them know that you understand where they’re coming from. Even an phrase like “Some readers believe [insert their argument here], which makes sense when we consider [insert their evidence here]” will let them know that you hear them. You acknowledge the argument and/or point, and the knowledge that you’re also informed will help them at least listen to your response.

The Response portion of the counterargument is a little easier, because you are more flexible in what you can say (which is what we all want to get to anyway). Once you’ve finished Acknowledgement, you can throw in a “but” or a “however” and the floor is yours. It’s important to remember that your response gains power the more specifically you connect it to the argument you acknowledged. If your response to Americans that prefer Pepsi over Coca-Cola is that they should be drinking more water, they’re not going to give you any credit. But if you get specific—say, telling Pepsi drinkers that travel frequently that Coca-Cola is actually easier to find in other countries—they’ll know that you both understand the argument and their point.

To sum up: take a look at what your argument is, choose a counterargument that relates specifically to yours, give your reader credit for being informed, and then provide specific evidence that help sway them to your side.

Dominique Zino, Assistant Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College (CUNY)

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Think of a counter argument not just as an isolated sentence or paragraph but as part of your overall strategy for your paper. One resource I use with my students, first introduced to me while I was teaching at Queens College (CUNY), is Mark Gaipa's "Breaking Into the Conversation." He offers eight strategies for arguing when you're required to respond to other authors. Think about how a counterargument would support your overall purpose in the piece(s) you're currently writing:

  • Are you trying to pick a fight with another author?
  • Are you riding on the coattails of other writers by summarizing and synthesizing their main ideas?
  • Are piggybacking off of someone else's argument to apply it to a new situation her or she hasn't considered yet?
  • Are you leapfrogging over a writer's idea to expose an oversight in his or her argument?
  • Are you playing peacemaker between two stances that may seem to some to be opposing ideas?
  • Are you taking on the status quo to show why it's wrong?
  • Are you trying to redirect the current conversation on a topic entirely because people seem focused on the wrong ideas?
  • Are you creating an innovative argument by introducing an idea or angle no one has considered yet?

Counter-arguing can fit into any of these broader purposes. Spend some time thinking about the different things you want your argument to achieve.

Amanda Morris, College Professor, Writer, Advisor, Writing Coach

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Great question! I understand your fear about undermining your own position, but by including the counterargument, you are strengthening your own credibility and making your argument more believable and trustworthy. The best way to address the counterargument is directly, honestly, and without bias.

Try not to use dismissive language when articulating the counterpoints in order to give those points a fair presentation. You are more likely to be trusted as the writer if you can accomplish an unbiased and fair statement of counterargument. Once you have achieved this balanced presentation, then you can pick it apart piece by piece with evidence and examples that show how weak or inappropriate that counterargument is. In this way, you will be more persuasive than if you either don't incorporate the counterpoints, or do so in a way that is snarky and dismissive of their validity.

Remember, no matter what you are arguing, someone out there disagrees with you and their points are legitimate, even when you don't agree. Writing something like, "Although Dr. Smith raises an excellent point about the sustainability of funding this program, my investigation into the long-term funding solutions for similar programs in our sister schools suggests that his position is flawed." Just an example, but you see what I'm doing. Try to respectfully establish your opposition by acknowledging that those points are legitimate, even when you may have the stronger argument.

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Colleen Clemens, College Professor, Writer, Editor, Tutor & Parent

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Excellent question and advice. Remember, you aren't "weakening" your position when you address the counterargument. You are showing that you have done your research, thought about what the others have said, and used their ideas to hone your own argument. In this day and age of shouting pundits who won't cede a foot in their own argument, we forget that showing you have worked to understand all sides of an issue is really the only way to gain credibility in your writing.

I usually advise students to start the essay's body with the counterargument so that the rest of the essay can show why that argument deserves to be contested. Here is some more information about different types of counterarguments.

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