Author: Bas Aarts


This contribution discusses the role of argumentation in the teaching of language and linguistics.

Table of contents

The concept of argumentation

Argumentation as a general notion refers to a process of systematic and methodical reasoning with the aim of arriving at a conclusion or solving a particular analytic problem by formulating a set of coherent and relevant arguments. In just about every academic discipline argumentation plays an immensely important role, and it is hard to over estimate how crucial and essential it is for students to learn to set up a good argument. Whatever their future careers maybe, for students to have learnt how to view a particular problem or issue from a number of different angles is an invaluable and indispensable skill.

Argumentation in linguistics

Semantics argumentation

In Linguistics, argumentation can take various forms. In semantics use is made of argument schemata (Gamut: 1991: 1ff.) which are part of predicate logic. For example:

A or B Example: Jamie will cook a meal or Nigella will cook a meal
Not A Jamie will not cook a meal
Therefore B Therefore Nigella will cook a meal

The schema above is a valid schema, while that below is not:

A if B Example: Jamie will cook a meal if Nigella will cook a meal
Not A Jamie will not cook a meal
Therefore B Therefore Nigella will cook a meal

Logical inferences are another type of argument. An example is the rule called modus ponens:

If Tom likes cars, then he doesn’t care about the environment.
Tom likes cars.
Therefore Tom doesn’t care about the environment.

Argumentation in syntax

In syntax we can use argumentation to argue for or against a particular analysis of some syntactic phenomenon. The starting point is always a hypothesis which one subsequently sets out to falsify in such a way that it is continuously improved as more data are brought to bear on the problem under investigation. Syntactic argumentation is a process that is guided by a number of general desiderata for proposed analyses, e.g. economy, elegance and independent motivation. To see how all this works, let’s look at some practical examples.

Words are assigned to word classes in grammar on the basis of a range of criteria, including semantic, morphological and distributional criteria. The latter are generally considered the most important. For example, adjectives are said to conform to four criteria:

  • They can precede nouns, e.g. the dark night (the so-called attributive position).
  • They can occur after a small set of linking verbs, e.g. the night was dark (the so-called predicative position).
  • They have comparative and superlative forms, e.g. darker, darkest.
  • They can be preceded by intensifying words like very, e.g. very dark.

Using these criteria the word crazy can be assigned unambiguously to the class of adjectives:

the crazy plan was ditched
the plan was crazy
a crazier plan I have never seen/this is the craziest plan ever proposed
He is very crazy

What about words like the and a? In some grammars, especially older school grammars, these words are called adjectives on the grounds that they are placed in front of nouns. However, it is easy to set up an argument to show that this is wrong. Thus, while adjectives can be ‘stacked’, as in georgeous, juicy oranges, this can’t be done with the and a:*the a book. What’s more, these words cannot occur in comparative or superlative forms (*the-er/*the-est, *a-er/*a-est), nor can they be preceded by an intensifier (*very the/*very a). In fact, the only argument we have for calling the and a adjectives is the fact that they can occur in a pre-nominal position. This is not enough for assigning them to the word class of adjectives, given the additional distributional evidence. The conclusion we are led to is that the and a belong to a separate word class, usually called determiners.

However, assigning words to word classes is not always this straightforward. Take words denoting colours in English. Which word class do they belong to? Are they adjectives, or perhaps nouns? We might ask students to set up an argument to decide the issue, using distributional criteria like those shown above. One’s initial hypothesis might be that words like green and yellow are adjectives, based on data like the following:

green fruit
yellow paper

Here yellow and blue are placed in front of nouns, a typical adjective position. What’s more, green and yellow can also occur predicatively:

This fruit is green.
This paper is yellow.

And we can go on: yellow and brown can take comparative and superlative endings, and can be preceded by intensifiers:

This banana is much greener than that one.
This wall is much too yellow for my taste.

At this point we may well conclude that colour terms are adjectives. But what about data like the following:

I don’t like the (dark) green you chose to paint the front door.
The browns used by Renaissance painters were much darker than those used today.

In these cases green and yellow behave like nouns in being able to be preceded by a determiner and/or adjective, and by being able to take a plural ending. At this point we are faced with at least three possible ways to proceed. Firstly, we can argue that colour terms can belong to either of two categories on any particular occasion of use, namely adjectives and nouns (with one class derived from the other through conversion), or, secondly, to both those categories at the same time. Thirdly, we can find ways of showing that in fact colour terms belong to just one category. Whichever choice we make, we’ll need to present arguments for it! I’ll leave this as an exercise for the reader. In your deliberations, think about how the sentence below (from McCawley 1998: 768) might bear on the issue:

Ted wore a deep/*deeply blue necktie

How to teach argumentation

The best way to teach argumentation is to make a habit in class of continually getting students to motivate the answers they give to particular problems they are faced with. Questions to ask might include: What is the best way to analyse this construction, and what arguments can you give that would support your answer? Why did this author analyse this construction in this way? Can you find counterarguments? etc. Aarts (1997/2001) is a textbook introduction to syntax with a focus on developing students’ argumentative skills. In the domain of grammar Huddleston and Pullum (2002) is perhaps the first grammar that offers extensive and systematic motivations for its analytical choices.


Aarts, B. (1997). English syntax and argumentation. Second edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gamut, L. T. F. (1991). Logic, language and meaning. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Huddleston, R. and G. K. Pullum (2002).The Cambridge grammar of the English language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McCawley, J. (1998). The syntactic phenomena of English. Second edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

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