The SBC GMAT Files

Argument Essay: Finding Flaws In An Argument Part II

In a previous article, I discussed a method for finding questionable assumptions in the AWA argument topic, a method I will elaborate a little more in this follow-up article.

As those of you familiar with the essay requirement already know, our first task, upon receiving the essay question, is to spend a few minutes probing the argument and finding flaws in it. While there are a few ready-to-go barbs that we can draw from our arsenal to undercut the argument (poor evidence, vague language, etc.), our essay will be stronger if we can really detect a flaw by analyzing the construction of the argument.

One useful way to detect such flaws is to search for discrepancies in the language of the argument’s premises and conclusion. If, for example, the premises provide a few facts about a topic such as worker productivity, but the conclusion mentions worker satisfaction, we can quickly see that the author of the argument has made an unfounded leap between the issue of productivity and satisfaction. This gives us an opening from which to critique the logical construction of the argument.

Let’s look at an example, from the official list of AWA Argument Essay topics:

Advertising the reduced price of selected grocery items in the Daily Gazette will help you increase your sales. Consider the results of a study conducted last month. Thirty sale items from a store in downtown Marston were advertised in The Gazette for four days. Each time one or more of the 30 items was purchased, clerks asked whether the shopper had read the ad. Two-thirds of the 200 shoppers asked answered in the affirmative. Furthermore, more than half the customers who answered in the affirmative spent over \$100 at the store.

This essay exhibits a variety of types of flawed reasoning, but we just want to focus here on one method of identifying flaws. This won’t help you uncover all the flaws, but it is a helpful trick to use, if you are stuck.

Start by differentiating the argument’s premises from its conclusion.  In this passage, the conclusion is actually the first sentence in the argument topic. How can we tell? Because it is cast as a recommendation – in the future: “Advertising…will help you increase your sales.” The rest of the argument is comprised of premises: the evidence supporting the conclusion.

Now let’s pay attention to the discrepancies between the premises and the conclusion. Note that the conclusion concerns advertising the REDUCED price of selected GROCERY items. Now, how does the author substantiate his/her conclusion concerning reduced grocery items? By presenting evidence about thirty GENERAL sale items that were advertised in the Gazette. Note that the premises say nothing of the reduced price of these items, nor of the nature of those items: grocery or otherwise.

Here is enough meat to create at least one good flaw paragraph for your essay. The questionable assumption is that any advantage of advertising general items will apply to reduced grocery items. But is this always true? What if people regard grocery items differently from general items? It might be the case that brand loyalty for grocery items is so strong that reduced prices don’t affect peoples choices. It doesn’t really matter how you choose to expose the questionable assumption — you can look to the actual wording of the argument by pointing out the internal discrepancy between premises and conclusions.

Remember the method: look at the premise and look at the conclusion, and identify any words in the conclusion that did not appear in the premises. This will point you to any hidden, unstated assumptions in the author’s argument, which are then fair game for you to attack.

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