Keeping Unbiased Language in your Argument Essay



When choosing a topic for your argument essay, it’s always best to choose an issue that you’re interested in and passionate about. There’s nothing worse than spending an entire term researching and writing about something that you have little interest in. But it’s also just as important to be fair and unbiased as you write your essay. The language you choose to communicate your points can work to either persuade – or alienate – your audience.

While it’s okay to feel excited or even enraged about a topic, your audience requires careful respect and consideration. Too much wrath and fury, or on the other side, too much praise and approval, will cause your reader to doubt your reliability, and could turn your audience against you.

Avoid Moralistic Language

A fine line exists between persuasive and opinionated, and it all comes down to word choice. In order for readers to feel sympathetic toward your position, a balance must be struck. In the example below, consider how your reader will react:

An added tax should be placed on all surgery drinks, including sodas, and is the only way to encourage healthy alternatives.

At first glance, many health-conscious readers might think this is a good idea. Added federal and state taxes are placed on another unhealthy – though popular – product, cigarettes, so why not sugary drinks?

But this statement implies that all surgery drinks harm our health. Most fruit juices, however, have as much, if not more, sugar than a can of Coke! But some fruit juices have no sugar added; the sugar content comes naturally from the fruit. Are fruit juices high in sugar? Yes. Is fruit juice as harmful as soda? Many would heartily disagree, and juice-drinking readers might feel targeted.

Avoid Superlatives and Exaggerations

Note the use of “only way” in the above example. The phrase, “is the only way to encourage healthy alternatives” implies that higher taxation will automatically push consumers to choose healthier options. The language of “the only way. . .” is a superlative that might turn off a reader by the moralistic tone. It could be one way, but not necessarily the only way.

Superlatives are terms that suggest the highest degree of something, such as
the best way
the worst way
should always
should never

Using superlatives paints the writer into an absolute corner and has no room for compromise.

Alternative: An added tax should be placed on all surgery drinks, including sodas, and could be one way to encourage healthy alternatives.

Example: Legalizing marijuana is the best way to decrease prison overcrowding.

Alternative: Legalizing marijuana might be one way to decrease prison overcrowding.

Example: Embryonic cell research is the perfect solution for finding a cure for Alzheimer’s.

Alternative:  Embryonic cell research is one of the best options to find a cure for Alzheimer’s.

Notice the difference in tone? Superlatives and exaggerations come off as dramatic and often biased and opinionated. By simply changing the language, your reader will be more apt to consider your points and consider your position as credible, whether or not they agree with you in the end.

When constructing an argument, consider how your language might be interpreted by varying audiences. While those who agree might not be offended, neutral or opposing audiences might be turned off by the language and opinionated tone.






Stay Positive! How to Avoid Negative Statements for Stronger Writing


Any type of writing, whether it be for an English class argument essay or an email, will benefit from positive statements. This doesn’t mean to look on the sunny side, but to eliminate negative constructions and use definitive statements in your writing.

Elwyn Brooks White 

William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, in their still-popular, The Elements of Style, urge writers to,

“Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.”

Strunk and White know what they are talking about, but most of us don’t, so let’s break that down.

A definitive statement is a direct, succinct, clear declaration. Look at the two examples below:

a. He was not very often on time.                  b. He usually came late.

It’s obvious that the first example is not only unclear, but wordy and hesitant. Most of the time, a positive, definite statement is shorter, and in academic writing, this is a good thing. Writers should always strive to avoid wordy sentence constructions, which can lead to confusion.

Let’s look at another example from Strunk and White:

a.  He did not think that studying  Latin was much use.

b.  He thought the study of Latin useless.

In both first (a.) examples above, the writer has used a negative (not), which weakens the message (and the writer’s authority). The sentence communicates what is not, as opposed to what is.

Let’s look at another example from a college paper:

The argument in favor of stricter environmental waste laws might not seem to possibly be enforceable.

This sentence has more than one problem, so let’s take a closer look.

The sentence, like the examples above, uses a negative – “might not seem.” Like the previous examples, changing it to a positive will strengthen the sentence immediately:

The argument in favor of stricter environmental waste laws is not enforceable.

The previous version was not only negative, but also indefinite. What does the writer mean? We’re not sure!

Academic writing should be strong and to the point, avoiding words like may, might, seem, possibly, probably. Indefinite constructions communicate the writer hasn’t thought out her opinions, or can’t decide on which side of the fence to sit. In the revised version, we have eliminated the wishy-washy construction, “might not seem to possibly. . .”.

The argument in favor of stricter environmental waste laws is not enforceable.

This statement is strong, bold, forceful, and the reader knows she can trust the writer.

Positive, definitive statements communicate that the writer knows the facts, has strong opinions, and has done their homework. Practice revising your sentences in the positive, definitive form for stronger, bolder writing.


Strunk, William Jr., and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. Macmillan, 1959.

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.






MLA Updates: What’s New

MLA has recently released the new 8th Edition of the MLA Handbook, which includes several updates. Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) explains the changes in the following article:

MLA Eighth Edition: What’s New and Different

[Contributors:Tony Russell, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli, Russell Keck, Joshua M. Paiz, Michelle Campbell, Rodrigo Rodríguez-Fuentes, Daniel P. Kenzie, Susan Wegener, Purdue OWL Staff]

In April 2016, MLA replaced its seventh edition resources with a new eighth edition. This updated version reflects the ways in which digital publication has changed how writers and researchers document sources. Therefore, the new edition includes significant shifts in the approach to source documentation in academic writing. While earlier editions emphasized the importance of following specific guidelines for formatting, the eighth edition focuses on the practice and process of scholarly documentation. The logic here is basic: a style guide should offer a method that is widely applicable. Rather than insisting that writers follow strict citation formulas, this handbook outlines the principles of MLA documentation and explains how writers can use them in many different situations.

For this reason, the new edition focuses on the writer’s strategy and individual decisions. Not all scholarly prose is the same, and every writer should evaluate her/his readers and determine how to best engage them. The writer’s goal should be to provide a document and list of sources that is easy for readers to use, so that the reading experience is informative and enjoyable.

Like earlier editions, this handbook includes information on evaluating sources, avoiding plagiarism, using quotations, constructing abbreviations, and other topics important to the scholarly writer. But what is different about the eighth edition is that it recommends a universal set of guidelines that writers can apply to any source, in any field. In the past, writers would create an entry in a works cited list by looking at MLA’s instructions for how to cite a specific type of source. For example, if you needed to cite a film, you would consult the handbook to see the proper format for documenting film. In this new edition, MLA explains that this method is no longer practical, since types of sources are sometimes undefinable, or accessible in more than one way (for instance, a YouTube clip from a film is not the same as the original film itself). Therefore, the eighth edition offers a new model for entries in a works cited list, so that rather than consulting the handbook for the proper way to document a specific type of source, the writer creates entries by consulting MLA’s list of core elements and compiling them in the recommended order.

Core elements are those basic pieces of information that should be common to all sources, from books to articles, from lectures to tweets. The MLA core elements are as follows:

Author Number
Title of source Publisher
Title of container Publication date
Other contributors Location

If you have included these elements and assembled them in a way that makes sense to your readers, then your works cited entries will be consistent and thorough.

Look for updates to OWLs resources and more detailed information about changes to MLA guidelines coming soon.


Since the eighth edition focuses on the principles of documenting sources, rather than on strict adherence to a particular format for each source, citations in this new edition vary only slightly from the old ways. When comparing works cited entries in the new eighth edition with the former seventh edition, see that differences in citation style are minimal; punctuation is streamlined, volume and issue numbers are identified as such, and there is no excess information such as city of publication or media type.

Note the differences in citing a print book with one author:

Eighth edition (the new way):

Jacobs, Alan. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Oxford UP, 2011.

In this version, only the most essential information is included (author’s name, book title, publisher, and date). Note that the city of publication is not needed, and the medium of publication is eliminated.

Seventh edition (the old way):

Jacobs, Alan. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

This version includes the city of publication (Oxford) and the medium (print), which the new eighth edition does not require.

The differences in citing an article from a scholarly journal:

Eighth edition:

Kincaid, Jamaica. “In History.” Callaloo, vol. 24, no. 2, Spring 2001, pp. 620-26.

This version identifies the volume (24), the number (2), and the page numbers (620-26) of the scholarly journal, rather than leaving those numbers without clear explanation. This helps readers best make sense of your citation and allows them to locate your source without getting bogged down with extra information or references that can be difficult to decipher. Also note that punctuation is simple; only commas separate the journal title, volume, number, date, and page numbers.

Seventh edition:

Kinkaid, Jamaica. “In History.” Callaloo 24.2 (Spring 2001): 620-26. Web.

This version includes the volume and number (24.2), and page numbers (620-26) of the journal, but does not explain those references. The seventh edition emphasized following a strict punctuation formula, such as parentheses around the date and the colon, while the new eighth edition focuses on providing this information in a more streamlined manner by using only commas to separate each component.


If you are already familiar with traditional MLA citation methods, continue to use them in a more simplified form. Since the eighth edition emphasizes the writer’s freedom to create references based on the expectations of the audience, consider what your readers need to know if they want to find your source.

  • Think of MLA style principles as flexible guides, rather than rules. Part of your responsibility as a writer is to evaluate your readers and decide what your particular audience needs to know about your sources.
  • Your goal is to inform, persuade, and otherwise connect with your audience; error-free writing, along with trustworthy documentation, allows readers to focus on your ideas.
  • In-text citations should look consistent throughout your paper. The principles behind in-text citations have changed very little from the seventh to the eighth editions.
  • List of works cited/works consulted needs to include basic core information, such as author’s name, title of source, publication date, and other information, depending on the type of source. Each entry should be uniform and simple, but should give enough information so that your readers can locate your sources.
  • These updated MLA guidelines are based on a simple theory: once you know the basic principles of style and citation, you can apply that knowledge widely, and generate useful documentation for any type of publication, in any field.


For more information on MLA changes, visit

The Art of Articles

An article is a word which is always used before a noun. In English, there are only three articles – a, an, and the. When you see an article, a noun will follow; however, the article may be followed by an adjective – such as “the tired dog,” or “the pretty girl.” The article-adjective-noun may also include an adverb, such as “the very tired dog,” or “the extremely pretty girl.”

Technically, an article is considered an adjective, as the article modifies the noun just as an adjective does. Articles are also referred to as “determiners” as they determine whether something is specific or nonspecific. Articles in English are either definite (specific), or indefinite (nonspecific).

THE = Definite Article

The is a definite article, which refers to something specific. For example, “Let’s go to the movie,” refers to a specific movie. If the sentence stated, “Let’s go to a movie,” it could mean any movie, or a nonspecific movie.

Other examples of definite articles:

I want to go to the party. (a specific party, not just any party)
Can a have the cookie? (a particular cookie, not just any cookie)
I want the coat on sale. (a particular sale coat)

Definite articles are also used before names of educational departments, buildings or institutions, such as

I want to go to the University of Nebraska.
He works in the Department of Gerontology.

Definite articles also precede bodies of water and mountain ranges:

I have heard the Great Lakes are beautiful.
Have you been to the Rocky Mountains?
I want to ski the Swiss Alps.

Other notes on definite articles

If you are referring to a country that is only one word, you would not use an article:

I am from Africa. (not the Africa)
I have visited France. (not the France)

You would use an article before the United States, but not America.

You would not use “the” for planets:

Incorrect: The Pluto is the smallest planet.
Correct: Pluto is the smallest planet.

Finally, omit “the” before cities, towns, states, continents, names of streets, languages, nationalities, sports (football), and academic subjects.

But DO use “the” before rivers, oceans, seas, specific points on the globe (the South Pole), geographical areas, deserts and forests.

A and An = Indefinite Articles

A or An are indefinite articles, which refers to a non-specific noun. For example, “Can I get a dog?” refers to any dog in general. In contrast, “Can I get the dog,” is referring to one specific dog.

The beginning letter and sound of a word will determine whether you’ll use A or An.
A singular noun beginning with a vowel will use “an”: an orange; an airplane; an opera. Also, an will precede a noun with a silent “h” such as hour. However, if the “h” is not silent, you would use the article a, such as a horse or a hobby.

A singular noun beginning with a consonant will use “a”; a car; a boy; a tornado. “A” is also used with a singular noun that has a consonant sound, such as university, which begins with a “y” sound, a consonant.

Other examples of indefinite articles:

I’d like to go to a university. (any university will do)
Can I have an apple? (any apple)
I want to see an octopus. (doesn’t matter which one)

We do not use an indefinite article with plural nouns and noncount nouns:

She was wearing red shoes. (shoes is a plural noun)
She has long brunette hair. (hair is a noncount noun)
I want to wear denim jeans to work Friday. (jeans is plural)
I have so much homework to do! (homework is noncount)


Now you try!

Fill in the blanks to the following sentences.

  1. There are ____ observers who believe that collecting is America’s fastest-growing hobby.
  2. According to Miller’s Fashion Doll, ­­­­­_____ popular magazine for doll collectors, dolls are second only to stamps as ­­­_____ most popular collectible in America, and Barbie is by far _____ most popular collector doll.
  3. While _____ people do make money selling the dolls, most simply have _____ large collection of Barbies and _____ interest in keeping her legacy alive.
(exercises from Bedford St. Martin Exercise Central)

For English Language Learners, visit these resources to learn about articles and for practice:




Active and Passive Voice

Active and passive voice refer to the subject of a sentence, and how action is performed. With active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action (think verb). In a passive voice, the subject receives the action.


Take a look at the following sentences:


EX. 1     The politician believes he is the best person for the job.

EX. 2      It is believed by the politician that he is the best person for the job.

 See the difference?

Both sentences above say the same thing, but the first example is clearer and more to the point. Why? Because the first sentence uses active voice, the subject, “The politician,” is doing the action, “believes.”


Active voice places the subject first, followed by the verb and object, as in-


The doctor stated that the patient’s high stress caused her heart attack.

It was stated by the doctor that the patient’s high stress caused her heart attack.

Because passive sentence construction add words and changes the normal doer-action-receiver, the reader must work harder to understand the intended meaning. Passive constructions are by their very nature wordier than active constructions, which also can lead to confusion.


See the following examples of active vs. passive voice below:

 Active: Diane (subject) loves (verb) her new chickens (object).

Passive: The new chickens (object) were loved (passive verb) by Diane.


Active: The Camaro (subject) outran (verb) the police cruiser (object).

Passive: The police cruiser (object) was outran (passive verb) by the Camaro (object).


Note that passive sentences aren’t incorrect; it’s just that they often aren’t the best way to phrase your thoughts. Sometimes passive voice is awkward and other times it’s vague. In addition, passive voice is usually wordy, so you can tighten your writing if you replace passive sentences with active sentence


“By” Sentence

 One way to identify a passive sentence construction is to note the word “by” in the sentence. If you have a passive sentence with a “by” phrase, such as, “The boy was bitten by the dog,” rewrite the sentence so the subject comes first, followed by the verb:
“The dog bit the boy.”

 Passive Voice Uses

 Passive voice actually is preferred in some instances. If you want to emphasize the action rather than the subject (or actor) you might use passive voice.


After the debate, the bill was endorsed by the state legislature.


Another instance you’ll find passive voice is in scientific writing.


“The DNA was tested.” (By whom?)


In this example, we don’t know who tested the DNA, as the author decided that wasn’t important. Scientists are expected to sound objective, so they take themselves, the subject, out of their sentences.


Although you may not be able to eliminate all passive voice from your writing, work to minimize it as much as possible. Your writing will be clearer, your message will be stronger, and your audience will be grateful!

 Now You Try!

Revise the passive sentences below to active. (Note the use of verb form).


  1. The new nursing program had been approved by the Curriculum Committee and the Board of Trustees.
  2. With five seconds left in the game, an illegal time-out was called by one of the players.
  3. “The Yellow Wallpaper” was written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
  4. An unexpected tornado smashed several homes and uprooted trees in a suburb of Knoxville.
  5. I was surprised by the teacher’s lack of sympathy.
 (Exercises from