# Argument Structure

Here is an example of a typical argument text in GMAT CR:

“In an attempt to explain the cause of malaria, a deadly infectious disease common in tropical areas, early European settlers in Hong Kong attributed the malady to poisonous gases supposedly emanating from low-lying swampland. Malaria, in fact, translates from the Italian as “bad air.” In the 1880s, however, doctors determined that Anopheles mosquitoes were responsible for transmitting the disease to humans after observing that the female of the species can carry a parasitic protozoan that is passed on to unsuspecting humans when a mosquito feasts on a person’s blood.”

In order to solve any CR question, there are two essential things you must understand:

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1. How the argument has been structured; what specific characteristics of the text help highlight the argument’s main point.
2. What type of CR problem (e.g. boldface) has been presented to you (the question stem will tell you this), i.e. what CR question type you’re looking at.

It helps to start by thinking about:

1. What is it that the author is actually arguing about?
2. What are the pieces of this argument?
3. How do they fit together?

Structurally, every argument on the GMAT CR comprises of a background, premise, conclusion, and counter-premise (or counterpoint).

Collectively, these categories represent the building blocks of the argument. While every argument aims to make a conclusive statement/claim, you must remember that not all of them have a conclusion. You will understand this better once you understand the four building blocks.

Let’s have a look at each in turn.

The conclusion is perhaps the easiest to detect, considering it very strongly approves, disapproves, validates or dismisses something mentioned in the argument with a firm tone (typically positive or negative). By definition, the conclusion is the primary claim that the author is trying to prove or the outcome of a plan that someone is proposing.

As you practice more CR questions, you will realize that not all CR arguments have a conclusion.

Let’s have a look at the example presented above to get a clearer picture:

“In an attempt to explain the cause of malaria, a deadly infectious disease common in tropical areas, early European settlers in Hong Kong attributed the malady to poisonous gases supposedly emanating from low-lying swampland. Malaria, in fact, translates from the Italian as “bad air.” In the 1880s, however, doctors determined that Anopheles mosquitoes were responsible for transmitting the disease to humans after observing that the female of the species can carry a parasitic protozoan that is passed on to unsuspecting humans when a mosquito feasts on a person’s blood.”

In the above text, the first two lines state a factual point regarding the nomenclature of “malaria”, and the line that follows merely opposes this point by citing legitimate evidence. Thus, what we see depicts an argument, yes, but the author is not deriving a claim/conclusion from all the information provided. This is clearly a narration of how the understanding of malaria in the scientific community changed because of findings that eventually came to life.

An example of an argument text that does have a legitimate conclusion would be:

“Between 1996 and 2005, the gray wolf population in Minnesota grew nearly 50 percent; the gray wolf population in Montana increased by only 13 percent during the same period. Clearly, the Minnesota gray wolf population is more likely to survive and thrive long term.”

The author of the above argument is seen to be drawing a claim/inference from information presented in the first two lines. Thus, the conclusion here would be “Clearly, the Minnesota gray wolf population is more likely to survive and thrive long term.”

The premise is the most essential part of an argument, and hence ALL arguments must contain at least one premise. A premise is information used by the author to better make his point. This information may be a fact or an opinion. In arguments that have a conclusion, the premise works as evidence that backs or supports the author’s claim.

“In an attempt to explain the cause of malaria, a deadly infectious disease common in tropical areas, early European settlers in Hong Kong attributed the malady to poisonous gases supposedly emanating from low-lying swampland. Malaria, in fact, translates from the Italian as “bad air. In the 1880s, however, doctors determined that Anopheles mosquitoes were responsible for transmitting the disease to humans after observing that the female of the species can carry a parasitic protozoan that is passed on to unsuspecting humans when a mosquito feasts on a person’s blood.”

As you must have already realized, the above argument introduces us to a series of information that first gives us some context about malaria and how it came to be named, and then makes its point about what malaria is actually all about. Because the point of the argument is reflected clearly in the latter part of the argument, by virtue of the supporting information that is provided, we know that it represents the premise for this argument.

While there are two other structural building blocks of an argument (which we will look into shortly), the premise (or premises) and conclusion represent the core of the argument. The core represents what the author is trying to tell you or prove to you. Remember that not all arguments will have a conclusion, but will have at least one premise, so you will always have at least a partial core.

All Critical Reasoning questions on the GMAT depend on your ability to detect a flaw in deriving the conclusion from the premise. As you will see, no argument used in GMAT CR questions is airtight, making them all easily destructible. Your ability to detect the flaws in the core reasoning (Premise->Conclusion) of the argument will depend on your apt detection of the four building blocks, particularly the conclusion (if any) and the premise. Hence, you must ensure a smooth understanding of it all.

The background (our third building block) of an argument is neutral information that is used to give the reader context of what the argument is getting into. Only some arguments have a background, primarily because it is not as essential as the core of the argument. This information is always true, and neither supports nor goes against any part of the argument text; it is merely information that is presented exactly for what it is, with no connotation whatsoever.

In our example, the first sentence works as the basic background:

“In an attempt to explain the cause of malaria, a deadly infectious disease common in tropical areas, early European settlers in Hong Kong attributed the malady to poisonous gases supposedly emanating from low-lying swampland. Malaria, in fact, translates from the Italian as “bad air.”

The fourth building block is the counter-point or counter-premise – a piece of information that goes against the author’s conclusion in a decisive way, but does not necessarily make a claim of its own (which is why it is not the conclusion).

Much like the background, the counter-premise is also not necessarily present on most CR arguments.

Let’s demonstrate the counter-premise with an example:

“Being articulate has been equated with having a large vocabulary. Actually, however, people with large vocabularies have no incentive for, and tend not to engage in, the kind of creative linguistic self-expression that is required when no available words seem adequate. Thus, a large vocabulary is a hindrance to using language in a truly articulate way.”

In the above example, three aspects of the argument seem to clearly emerge. A point in the first sentence, subjected to a counter-point, which ultimately leads to the conclusion.

Contrary to what you are perhaps thinking right now, the second sentence in the argument is actually the premise here, simply because the conclusion that follows is in favour of it. In fact, if we were to put this in the right words, the second sentence works in favour of the conclusion and is hence the premise. This automatically makes the first sentence the counter-premise, because, in effect, it goes against the premise.

So, very simply put, the counter-premise (if present) is any argument is a point that goes against the premise, and by consequence, the conclusion as well.

The GMAT can vary the types of building blocks used in a particular argument, and it can also vary the order of presentation of these building blocks. All you should remember is that breaking the argument down will not only help you better understand the author’s point, but will also bring you closer to answering the question correctly. This task of break-down needs practice of course, because as you go forward reading the entire argument text, your own initial opinion of what the building blocks are, may change considerably. Ideally, it is always useful to identify the core of the argument first (premise only if there is no conclusion), so you can re-orient yourself with every other structural unit accordingly.

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