Common Logical Fallacies in Argument Papers

(from Grammar Girl: Quick & Dirty Tricks)

5 Types of Fallacies You Don’t Realize You’re Using in Your Writing

 (By Lora Wegman, read by Mignon Fogarty)

The key to writing a strong argument is logic. Even writers who typically have sound logic, however, can fall into illogical conclusions when they are passionate about a topic and use unsound arguments—typically referred to as fallacies.

Here are a few tips for identifying the most common fallacies in writing and how to avoid them.


This fallacy, also called a “hasty generalization,” happens when the writer draws a conclusion about a group of people based on insufficient data. Often, these assumptions come from stereotypes and implicit biases, so these can sometimes be the trickiest fallacies to detect in your own writing. Perhaps you assume, for instance, that all members of a particular political party have the same stance on the death penalty, or you believe that all people who attend a certain school are wealthy. Basing an argument on unproven assumptions will ultimately make your position weaker and therefore easier to attack. As you’re reviewing your writing and come across an assumption, be sure to ask yourself, “Do I really know that this is true?”

Straw Man

A straw man argument oversimplifies an opponent’s position and then attacks it. This is often a big one for politicians, who might portray larger-picture views instead of nuance. For example, imagine that you are assigned to write an essay opposing school uniforms. If you state, “Requiring students to wear uniforms means they will lose all sense of individuality,” then you may be setting up a straw man argument. Instead of arguing for why students should be able to wear their own outfits, you instead take the argument to a simpler and perhaps more emotional conclusion, and then argue against that broader implication. When you’re listening to politicians, as yourself whether their argument is against what their opponents are actually suggesting, or have they thrown a straw man into the ring by misrepresenting their opponents’ position as something more extreme?

Ad Hominem

In ad hominem attacks, a position is attacked not through reasoning related to the argument itself, but instead by attacking the opponent’s personal character. For example, if Squiggly says we should have chocolate cake for dinner, and Aardvark responds by saying that  Squiggly is an idiot, he’s using an ad hominem attack—addressing only Squiggly’s character—and not making a logical argument about why chocolate cake for dinner is bad.

Closely related to the ad hominem attack is the tu quoque fallacy: This is when, instead of opposing an argument or a criticism, the speaker or writer responds by turning it back on the accuser. It’s essentially an argument that says, “Oh, yeah? What about you?” An example would be crafting an argument against doctors’ anti-smoking messages by pointing out statistics about how many doctors smoke. Those facts would have nothing to do with the anti-smoking argument itself but instead simply attack the behavior of those on the opposing side.

Post Hoc

A post hoc argument assumes one event caused another, based solely on the order of occurrence. The full Latin phrase—“post hoc, ergo propter hoc”—means “after this, therefore, because of this.” So, to use a historical example that was once believed to be fact: “People who spend time outside at night are more likely to catch malaria, therefore, night air causes malaria.” The fact that things happen in order doesn’t mean that one thing actually caused the next to happen. We now know that malaria is caused by a parasite transmitted by mosquitos, not by night air.

This is somewhat like the “slippery slope” fallacy. In these cases, you’re arguing against something with the assumption that it will lead to another undesirable outcome through a series of incremental steps. But in reality, the events may not actually be related if they do occur, or the first event might happen without the catastrophic result.

Red Herring

A red herring is a classic misdirection. We see this all the time in fiction, from Sherlock Holmes stories to modern-day thrillers. False clues are planted to throw the reader off. Similarly, a red herring fallacy can pop up in your writing when your argument veers into an area only tangentially related to the core topic. This may be purposeful, but it’s also easy to do without intending to. Here’s an example in which President Ronald Reagan used humor and diversion as a red herring in answering a debate question:

 Reporter: You already are the oldest president in history. … President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?

Reagan: Not at all … and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.

So, how do you catch yourself using fallacies? Play devil’s advocate with your own writing. Ask yourself what the logical counter-argument is and whether yours holds up. Then, identify any stereotypes or biases you are inadvertently using to inform your position. This should help you identify holes in your logic and set you up for a stronger result.


Final Check: Self-editing tips for your final draft



MLA Formatting

**MLA has recently made some changes to how things are formatted and cited. Make sure you know if you are to follow the old or new edition. The following are suggestions from the old edition, as most instructors will not change over mid-term.

Include 1” margins on all sides.

Double-space all lines (no extra spaces between header and title and title and text).

Center title. Do not bold, italicize, or enlarge font.

Single space after periods or other end punctuation.

Tab all indents; spacing 5 times is not the same!

Insert a paginated right header. This means to insert your last name only, followed by a space, then the page number. Your instructor may ask that you remove this from the first page, as you’ll have your left header here.

Works Cited should be numbered consecutively after the last page of essay.

Insert 4-line left header on first page only.

Block quotes should be indented one inch with no quotation marks.

All other direct quotes should have quotation marks and in-text citation, followed by period (note: period comes after the citation).


All outside research or sources should be followed with an in-text citation, whether they are a direct quote, paraphrase, or summary.

Direct quotes should have attributive or author tags.

If a source doesn’t have an author, give the title or website.

The in-text citation should match the FIRST WORD the source is listed under on the Works Cited page.

Avoid giving dictionary definitions of a word as an “outside source.” That’s not research.

Always use italics when referring to a book or website; use quotation marks for small works (article or short story) in a larger work (book or newspaper).

Works Cited


The title, Works Cited, should be centered at the top of the final page. Do not bold, italicize or enlarge font.

Works Cited should also be double spaced. NO EXTRA SPACES BETWEEN ENTRIES.

Works Cited should be alphabetized by author’s last name. If no author, alphabetize by the title or website. See Purdue Owl for other listings.

Each entry should have a hanging indent (the opposite of a regular line indent).

Include URL only if instructor requires it, or if the source cannot be found without it.

When using electronic sources, always include the date you accessed the source.

Other Tips

In Microsoft WORD, the default for paragraphs is set to insert an extra line space when you hit ENTER to move to a new paragraph. You must reset this to avoid triple-spacing the header, paragraphs, and Works Cited entries. To do this, go to the PARAGRAPH tab on the toolbar, clicking on the icon that has up and down arrows with five lines, just to the right of the 4 justification icons. Click the arrow on the right to open the tab, and scroll down to the bottom line that says “Add Space After Paragraph”; click this so that it says “Remove Space After Paragraph.” If you have already completed your essay and have triple spaces, highlight the entire text, follow these steps, and it should remove the extra lines.

The default font in Word is usually Calibri 11. MLA is Times New Roman 12, unless otherwise instructed. Make sure you have changed the font to follow MLA. 

This list is a very abbreviated editing checklist, and your instructor might have different directives, which we refer to as “instructor preference.” Always follow your instructor guidelines and ask for specifics if you are unsure of anything. 

This is only an abbreviated list of editing steps to take to make your essay a perfect as it can be. Hopefully, you’ve read your essay over carefully and had a peer read it as well. Don’t trust Spellcheck! Once you’ve done all you can do, turn it in and let it go. If you’ve followed your instructor’s guidelines and instruction and edited carefully, you should feel confident you’ve done your best work.






5 Tips to Integrate Sources & Use Attributive Tags Effectively


Regardless whether you summarize, paraphrase, or directly quote, outside sources must be integrated smoothly into your essay. Research that is stuck in carelessly without careful integration runs the risk of sounding like it doesn’t belong, creating paragraphs that lack cohesiveness and focus. Instructors often refer to this as the “cut and paste” research paper that will often garner a failing grade. Follow the tips below to learn how to integrate source material effectively.

Tip # 1: Write the draft first

Before you begin to integrate your sources, you need something to integrate them into. Writers who try to compose a paper at the same time they are integrating sources find they lose their “voice,” and begin to sound like the voice of the research they are quoting. To avoid this, write a first draft of your paper, with only your words and your voice doing the talking. By taking this first step in getting your ideas on paper, you’ll avoid letting the research take over. Some instructors require a rough draft before even integrating source material to confirm you are not borrowing others’ ideas.

Tip # 2: Use Attributive Tags

 Attributive, or author tags, refers to a few words of introduction of your source. An attributive tag includes the author’s name, and varying information depending on the context, including the author’s professional title (is he or she a “Dr.”  Scientist,” “Researcher,” or “Professor”?), the article’s title, and any other relevant information, which could include the author’s position on the subject (“John Smith, ecologist and staunch opponent of keeping animals in captivity. . .”).

An author tag identifies the information presented as coming from an outside source and not you. You must make clear throughout your paper what information is coming from outside sources. Failing to use attributions is considered a type of unintentional plagiarism.

Tip # 3: Vary the way author tags are used

 Author tags can be incorporated in 3 ways:

  1. The author tag can be introduced first before the quoted material.
  2. The author tag can be placed in the middle of the quoted material.
  3. The author tag can be placed at the end of the quoted material.

EX. 1
Vivian Cook, author of Second Language Learning and Language Teaching, says that “there is no such thing as the classroom, as classrooms vary in so many ways” (149).

EX. 2
“There is no such thing as the classroom,” says Vivian Cook, author of Second Language Learning and Language Teaching, “as classrooms vary in so many ways” (149).

EX. 3
“There is no such thing as the classroom, as classrooms vary in so many ways,” says Vivian Cook, author of Second Language Learning and Language Teaching (149).

Note that in the first example, there is no comma after that, as it reads as a continuous thought. If the attribution ended with the word says, it would have a comma immediately after “says” and the first word of the quoted sentence would be capitalized.

Vivian Cook, author of Second Language Learning and Language Teaching, says, “There is no such thing as the classroom, as classrooms vary in so many ways” (149)

Tip # 4: Use a colon when the author tag is a full sentence

The rule for using a colon following an attributive tag is if the tag is a complete sentence or independent clause, it must be followed by a colon. (Note that the author tags in the previous examples are all technically sentence fragments.)


Cameron believes artists should stop making excuses for not following their dreams. “Stop waiting until you make enough money to do what you really love” (57).

The quote above is an example of a dangling quote, or a quote that stands alone as a sentence. You can often (though not always) correct this mistake by taking the previous sentence and place a colon at the end instead of a period:


Cameron believes artists should stop making excuses for not following their dreams: “Stop waiting until you make enough money to do what you really love” (57)

Tip #5: Use attributive tags with paraphrases and summary

When incorporating paraphrase and summary, it is impossible to tell if the information is the thoughts of the writer or from an outside source without attributive tags. In the examples below, the writer includes the name of the source, even though it is a paraphrase and not a direct quote. By doing this, the reader knows the information is coming from research and not the writer:

In Talking from 9 to 5, Deborah Tannen explains that for women in the workplace, the situation is changing, whether we talk about it or not (130).

Nickerson argues that clear communication hinges upon what an audience does and does not know. It is crucial to assume the audience has neither too much nor too little knowledge of the subject, or the communication may be inhibited by either confusion or offense (737).

As you work on integrating your source material –

  • Avoid using two quotations in a row without intervening (explanatory) material of your own.
  • Avoid referring to your sources as quotes. Instead of, “In this quote,” write “Here we see. . .” or “As Smith points out. . .”.  (
  • Introduce the quote; quote; explain the quote. Always place outside research in context to the point you are attempting to make, and do it in your own words.

Taking care to integrate your outside source material will result in a top-notch research essay that will flow naturally and earn you respect as a thorough and fair researcher.


10 Do’s and Don’ts for Argument Essays

When writing argument essays, understanding basic principles for academic writing will help you avoid the many possible pitfalls that might be lurking. Below are ten do’s and don’ts to follow for the best argument essay ever!

  1. DO follow assignment guidelines. Students often write great essays, only to fail to follow assignment directions. If you are asked to include eight sources and you give two, that’s not meeting the minimum requirements. If you write an informational essay when you are assigned an argument paper, that’s a big problem. If in doubt, always ask your instructor.
  2. DON’T preface a statement with phrases such as, “I believe,” or “I think.” These expressions only serve to weaken the statement. It’s akin to an apology for your opinion. Unless you are quoting or paraphrasing, it’s a given you “believe” or “think” something. Instead of “I think that college should be free for all,” revise to, “College should be free for all.” See how much stronger and emphatic the second example is?
  3. DO take citation style seriously. Many students who have never written a research paper or are unfamiliar with MLA or APA citation requirements often believe the rules concerning in-text citation, works cited, or reference pages are a low priority. However, most instructors who assign research papers expect students to follow these rules and will often deduct a large number of points for failure to follow the guidelines.
  4. DO attribute all ideas to their source. Often in research papers, it’s obvious that ideas or opinions are not the author’s, but are not cited to an outside source. Students paraphrase others’ ideas into their own words, but often fail to cite. This creates the impression that the information is coming from the writer, when in fact, it’s a source’s idea or opinion. Always give credit to avoid plagiarism.
  5. DON’T signpost. Signposting refers to directional signs in your writing that tell the audience what you just said or what you will say. This might be required in speech class, but it’s not necessary in written papers. Avoid telling your audience what you previously said or what you will say – just say it!
  6. DO integrate quotes smoothly. When incorporating sources, research must be integrated into your own writing smoothly, introduced completely, and synthesized fully. Simply sticking a quote in a paragraph because it might be related to the content doesn’t offer the reader any context and could lead to research that seems stuck in and out-of-context.
  7. DON’T use inflated phrases. When writing a research paper, students often think they have to take on a voice of authority, and they believe they need to use wordy constructions to sound “academic,” when all it does is sound pretentious. Wordy, inflated phrases are also confusing to read. Use your own voice and eliminate wordiness.
  8. DO organize your paper logically. While there are several different ways to organize an argument essay, make sure the organization method you choose is logical for what you are trying to do. Ideas should flow smoothly one to the next, and avoid repetition. Avoid jumping back and forth between paragraph topics.
  9. DON’T slack on the conclusion. A common response on student papers is, “Ends abruptly.” Often students concentrate so intently on building the body of a research paper and incorporating sources that they overlook the importance of a strong conclusion.
  10. DO carefully proofread. Spell-check is great, but it doesn’t help find word usage errors, one of the most common errors in academic papers. It’s also difficult to find everything in one read-through. After you have read your essay through at least once to check for good paragraph structure, focus and flow, do a final edit for punctuation and grammar only. Better yet, read it backwards to slow your reading down, making it easier to see errors.



Breaking Down the Rhetorical Triangle


The concept of the rhetorical triangle has been in existence as far back as ancient Greece. The great philosopher and teacher, Aristotle, became fascinated with how rhetoric functions. How an individual says something, the emotions and sentiment used, conveys as much or more meaning as what one says, or the actual content of message. Aristotle defined 3 key elements of rhetoric: Logos, Ethos, and Pathos.

While many philosophers defined rhetoric in their own language, Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle is known and taught widely in modern-era composition classrooms. Studying the rhetorical triangle teaches writers whether or not they have created an effective argument. Over time, different scholars have conceived different models of rhetoric, so you may find the definitions vary slightly from text to text.


The Greek logos, means “word.” Originally, logos referred to the content of a speech and how it was organized, though today in speech or argument writing, a well-developed logos refers to a strong claim and reasoning, or the “message.” For effective logos, the argument must have

A Clear and Consistent Claim

Logical Reasons

Effective Evidence

The claim, or thesis, must be clear for the audience. The reasons are often referred to as “because clauses,” which is a simple way to define the argument in the early stages of drafting. For instance, the claim, “Rap music has a bad influence on teens,” can be completed with a logical reason: “Rap music has a bad influence on teens because it promotes disrespect for women.” Once a claim and reason are made, effective evidence must back up the claim for an effective argument.


Greek for “character,” ethos refers to the writer’s (or speaker’s) perspective and credibility. A paper with a strong ethos will utilize several strategies to communicate the message effectively. A writer can develop ethos by utilizing effective tone and style; incorporating strong evidence and support; and including fair treatment of opposing views.

The writer or speaker must always be mindful of the impression created by their delivery of a message. Understanding audience plays an important role in effective ethos. When writing an argument, consider how you, as the speaker, are coming across. For effective ethos, the writer (or speaker) must

Be knowledgeable. Present strong reasoning and support for your argument.

Be fair. The opposition may disagree with your argument, but they may have their own valid opinions.

Understand your audience by using audience-based reasons.


Pathos, Greek for “suffering” or “experience,” refers to the emotional appeal the writer makes to the audience. For effective pathos, the writer must first understand exactly who their audience is. Some texts refer to pathos as “audience.” Tone and style plays a large role in pathos.

One way to incorporate pathos into your argument is by telling a narrative story. For example, if you are arguing to legislate a one-strike law for drunk driving offenses, showing your audience the scene at a drunk driving accident will create sentiment and incite emotion that is more persuasive than reasoning alone. Storytelling, with vivid language and illustrations, can create a strong emotional reaction in an audience, moving them to your side.

Final Thoughts

Some instructors include other rhetorical elements, Telos, or “purpose,” and Kairos, or “setting.” All of these terms are interconnected, and each has qualities that affect how they interrelate. Each element in the rhetorical triangle, logos, ethos, and pathos, carries some responsibility for the success – or failure – of the argument.


(Some definitions from Writing Arguments: A Rhetoric with Readings)

The Basics of Paragraph Structure


A paragraph is simply a group of related sentences comprised of a single topic. Creating a good paragraph structure helps your reader easily follow the piece of writing. If your paper is full of wonderful ideas, but the ideas are not presented in a well-organized, coherent, logical order, then your reader will become frustrated and most likely stop reading.


The most important rule to follow when creating paragraphs is to remember that one paragraph contains one idea. Following that one simple rule will prevent most, if not all, problems with paragraph structure. Novice writers often try to include as much information as possible in one paragraph, which creates a jumbled mess of ideas that are hard, if not impossible, to follow. If you begin a new topic, begin a new paragraph.


Since your paragraphs will have one main idea or point, the paragraph will include supporting details, but those supporting points will be directly related to the paragraph’s main idea. It’s okay to have several supporting points in one paragraph, as long as they are directly related to the main idea or point of the paragraph.


  1. Your paragraphs should be unified. When paragraphs are unified, they have a clear focus. The paragraph begins with one main idea, the idea carries throughout the paragraph, and the conclusion of the paragraph maintains focus on that one controlling idea, and avoids wandering off-track or introducing new or unrelated information.
  2. Your paragraphs should be cohesive. A cohesive paragraph is one that makes the information easily understandable. The words and ideas flow logically with smooth transitions from sentence to sentence. The one main idea you began the paragraph with continues from sentence to sentence. Transitional words guide the reader through the paragraph for a fluid reading. A reader should be able to quickly read the paragraph and be able to easily summarize what it is about.
  3. Your paragraph should be fully developed. The one main idea or topic in the paragraph should be adequately discussed, leaving nothing in question. Fully developed, however, doesn’t mean wordy or redundant. In contrast, a paragraph that is too short will leave questions in the reader’s minds about the main idea. In most college-level writing, paragraphs of 2 or 3 sentences, especially in research papers, or are often not fully developed.


If you want to discuss a new idea or make a new point, start a new paragraph. In longer research papers, you might need to start a new paragraph if the main point in the paragraph becomes extended with supporting, related explanation or research.

You can also start a new paragraph if you want to contrast ideas or offer opposing viewpoints to your main point. Even though the ideas are related, creating separate paragraphs of contrast help the reader to follow your line of reasoning and prevents paragraphs from becoming too long and confusing.

An introduction to an essay will always be in its own paragraph; similarly, always begin a new paragraph for your conclusion. Both the intro and conclusion may have multiple paragraphs, depending on the essay’s length and the writer’s purpose, but intro information and concluding information should never be integrated in body paragraphs.

To test your paragraphs, have a peer read each carefully and ask him or her to identify the controlling idea, and evaluate the unity, cohesiveness, and development of the paragraph. If the paragraph cannot be read fluidly and be easily understood, revise.

Good paragraph structure is an essential element to good writing and a strong composition. Make sure each sentence in a paragraph only discusses one main idea or point, creating a unified, cohesive, fully-developed paragraph. Well-constructed paragraphs lead to well-constructed papers.



Writing the Profile Essay


Profile writing is common in Literary Journalism, but even freshman English Composition classes often assign a profile essay. What distinguishes a profile from other types of written assignments?

A profile usually asks you to closely observe a person. A good profile subject is someone who may represent a culture, place, or situation that is unique or intriguing. For instance, profiling an unknown tri-athlete can show an audience what it might be like to overcome challenges or demonstrate the dedication it takes to compete. Profiling a local pastry chef may show a unique occupation that has been gaining popularity from TV shows like Cupcake Wars.

A profile is similar to a narrative essay in that it utilizes a narrative method of organization, incorporating narrative storytelling devices such as scenes, sensory detail, and dialogue, to build the essay. All of these details work together to show the character of the profile subject. Specific details are shown in scenes; descriptions are shown through the use of sensory detail, such as sight, smell, touch, taste and sound, as well as literary techniques like metaphor and simile, and other figurative language.

Most profile essays will require you to interview your subject. This is a narrative storytelling technique which allows the subject to speak for themselves, again showing the character and personality of the subject. As the interviewer, you will be required to have a good ear to relay the spoken word. You’ll have to transcribe the interview into dialogue form, which is fun and challenging at the same time. Choosing what to leave in and what to edit out will determine how your profile subject is characterized.

Finding a great subject is half the battle, as a profile is only as good as the subject. Think outside the box when considering who you might want to profile. Good subjects come in unlikely places. The grocery store clerk. The Starbucks barista. The school security guard. All of these subjects work in places with lots of setting specifics and sensory detail.


Profile as Part of a Larger Project

It’s not unusual to incorporate a profile piece into an argument essay as a way to hook the audience and to dramatize an issue. Take a look below at the “Profile” introduction to an argument essay. The writer is trying to persuade the audience to require breathalyzers in the cars of convicted drunk drivers:

Charley Wolf left the bar at 1:00am after consuming seven beers and ten shots in a three hour period. Wolf slid behind the wheel of his Ford pickup, turned the ignition, and put the truck in “Drive.” In the next twenty minutes, Wolf was spotted by other motorists weaving on the expressway, running over a curb, and knocking down a road barrier. Within ten minutes, Wolf hit another car head-on, killing the driver and critically injuring the passenger. As the police booked Wolf, they learned he had four previous drunk driving offenses.

Consider this alternate scenario: Wolf consumed seven beers and ten shots in three hours. He left the bar to drive home. But when he got behind the wheel, the ignition wouldn’t unlock until he took a breathalyzer, which he failed. Wolf took a cab home, avoiding what could have been a tragedy.

In this example, the writer profiles a subject to show a tragic scene, hooking the audience with the emotional appeal of a true story, adding support to his argument requiring breathalyzers for previously convicted drunk drivers.

Final thoughts

When writing a profile essay, take some time to consider who might make a good subject, and what you want to “show” in the profile. Details you’ll glean from the interview and observation will help characterize the subject. Think about what you want your audience to take away from the profile. Maybe the grocery store clerk has been at the same store for thirty years and is a part of the local culture of the neighborhood. The Starbucks barista may have something interesting to say on this special form of addiction (caffeine!). Take your time with careful observation, and prepare interview questions ahead of time. A good subject and careful prep will go a long way toward a great profile.