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The classical argument is an structural device used and recommended by rhetoricians since ancient times. When used correctly, it can effectively persuade audiences that are neutral or undecided. By weighing the costs and benefits of both the writer's opinion and opposition, it is a middle of the road argument that places more emphasis on fairness than provoking emotion.

If you're familiar with the infamous five paragraph paper many people in grade school (opening, three body paragraphs, closing), then this shouldn't be all too unfamiliar. Here are the pieces of it complete with their confusing Latin name and what it really means:

  • Introduction- This section includes several smaller sections, usually only a few sentences:
    • Exordium- The attention grabber. Dramatic statistics or a heart wrenching narrative are good examples.
    • Narratio- The explanation of the issue and needed background information. If the audience already knows the background info, then it shouldn't be included.
    • Propositio- The writer's thesis or claim. Basically, this is where the writer tells where he or she stands on an issue.
    • Partitio- The explanation of what the argument will include. This can outlines what each body paragraph will be about, or just give a general idea of what's going to be discussed.
  • Confirmatio or The writer's argument- This section includes the body which presents and supports each given reason. Each reason is tied to an underlying value, belief, perception, or assumption held by the audience.
  • Confutatio or The opposing arguments- First, this section fairly summarizes the opponent's arguments. Then it refutes these arguments by showing weakness, or concedes to the opposing view. By conceding, the author gains credibility, but must show which the other reasons given earlier outweigh this strength in the opponent's argument.
  • Peroratio or Conclusion- This section formally closes the argument by summing it up and ideally leaves a powerful impact on the audience calling for action.

Classical arguments work best on neutral or undecided audiences. This is because the structure of this argument tries to persuade an audience to believe or perceive things a certain way by presenting both sides and refuting the opposition.

It wouldn't be necessary to use a classical argument with a sympathetic audience; arguments directed towards those that already share the writer's opinions should be full of motivational language and should try to convince the audience to take action.

Classical arguments aren't effective with dealing with antagonist audiences, either. Because a classical argument states which side the writer is on at the beginning, the opposition will tune out much of what is said due to their disagreement. Good writers can show that they have many of the same underlying beliefs with the audience, while stealthily leaving out which side they support until the end. This method is called a Rogerian argument.

Source: Ramage, John D., et al. Writing Arguments. Needham Heights, Mass: 2001.

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