What is a claim?
I. What a Claim Is
A claim is the main argument of an essay. As opposed to other kinds of writing,
academic writing depends upon your ability to show relevance and evidence of an
argumentative position. The quality of the entire paper hinges on the claim, so if
your claim is boring, obvious, or to vague, then your paper will reflect those
qualities as well.
A claim must be argumentative. When you make a claim, you are arguing for a
certain interpretation or understanding of your subject. This also implies that you
cannot argue for something that is generally accepted or cannot be supported by
A good claim is specific. It makes a focused argument (MTV‟s popularity is
waning because it no longer plays music videos) rather than a general one (MTV
II. What a Claim Is Not
A claim is not a statement of opinion. Fried Twinkies are delicious is not a claim.
There is no way to argue against it, because it is completely subjective—no other
supportive material can objectify the tastiness of a Fried Twinkie.
A good claim is not overly general. The Seattle Seahawks had a bad defense last
year is not a very good claim. A better one would be: Last season, the Seattle
Seahawks’ defensive problems resulted largely from the offense’s short
A claim is not always limited to one sentence. If you have a complicated claim, it
may take several sentences or even a whole paragraph to articulate it.
A claim is not always followed by three supporting paragraphs and a conclusion.
In college, or, at least, in this class, you don‟t have to write five-paragraph essays.
Use as many paragraphs as you need.
A claim is not obvious. Using scientific evidence, expert interviews, and close
reading of meteorological texts, you could successfully argue that it rains a lot in
Seattle. But this might not be the most interesting argument to make.
A claim is not a thesis statement. Rather than simply throwing out your
“interpretation” of given texts, a claim attempts to apply textual ideas to specific
events. So instead of having a thesis statement that says “The Pig in Animal Farm
represents greed and corruption” for the billionth time, you might try claiming
“The lessons of Animal Farm might be applied to the U.N. „Oil for Food‟ scandal
in which naïve, idealistic plans for humanitarian aid ended in scandalous failure.”
III. Subclaims, Evidence, Assumptions, Analysis, and Audience
A subclaim is a more specific application of your general, overarching claim as it
applies to certain elements of your topic. So, if your claim is that the Seahawks‟
defense suffered from an inept offense, a subclaim might be “Matt Hasselback,
quarterback of the Seahawks, displayed poor game management skills.” This
process involves analysis of a larger claim into smaller ones. In fact, the word
analysis itself literally means “the resolution or breaking up of anything complex
into its various simple elements”—so in order for you to get your point across,
you‟ll have to break it up into digestible pieces which can then be processed and
supported by evidence.
Note that this is an area in which the old “5 Paragraph Essay” is of use—your
paper depends on your ability to argue for a big claim by showing evidence for its
smaller pieces. Therefore, if you can show that the Seahawks offensive figures
played poorly, that its defense was overworked as a result, and that the team
therefore struggled, you have written an argumentative paper.
Note that you must show evidence for these subclaims. It cannot be assumed that
poor offensive plays leads to poor defensive play. Such an assumption is
considered to be unwarranted.
Moreover, in a preceding bullet, I mentioned Matt Hasselback. Do you know who
he is? I‟ve assumed that you do, haven‟t I? Is that an unwarranted assumption? It
depends on my audience. If I‟m writing a sports column for the Seattle Times, I
can probably assume that…but how about in an academic paper? What is
warranted and unwarranted? And how does your relationship with your audience
factor into this equation?
In arguing a claim, you should always consider potential counterclaims and
counterarguments. For instance, in response to my above claim about the
Seahawks, someone might say: You’re wrong. The Hawks defensive problems last
year were a result of poor coaching on the part of the defensive coordinator. This
counterclaim denies the validity of my claim.
It‟s important to address counterclaims in your writing in order demonstrate a
clear understanding of your subject matter as well as to convey a convincing
argument. Thus, you might respond by saying Oh yeah? Well your mom is better
than the defensive coordinator. But then you would probably fail my class.
V. (Slightly Exaggerated) Examples of Faulty Claims
In making claims, it is important to avoid logical pitfalls in argumentation. Try to
avoid the following examples of confused thinking:
1. Begging the Question Offering support for a claim that is really the claim
itself restated. Example: I‟d be a better student if only I got better grades.
2. False Dilemma Assuming that only certain options exist when more options
are available. Example: The store is out of Chocopuffs, therefore I can‟t have
3. Guilt by Association Failing to consider a linking category in its entirety.
Example: Jumping off a cliff can cause injury. Exercise can cause injury.
Therefore, jumping off a cliff is a form of exercise.
4. Faulty Cause and Effect Treating as a causal relationship what may only be
part of a cause or may be merely a coincidence. Example: I had a nasty
hangover when I took my last chemistry test, and I got an A. I will be sure to
indulge in binge drinking the night before tests from now on.
5. Lack of Contrary Evidence Offering the lack of proof for an opposing
viewpoint as “proof” of one‟s own claim. Example: No one has objected to
my secret plan to destroy the world, so it must be a good idea.
6. Oversimplification Omitting crucial points or qualifications to make an
argument appear insubstantial or even silly. Example: The striking workers
just want to get big raises.
7. Personal Attack Example: My English teacher wears cheap shoes. Therefore,
he doesn‟t know what he‟s talking about.
8. Insincerity or Waffling Shifting, often subtly, from arguing the point in
question to arguing another point. Example: Yes, tossing sacks of kittens into
the river is wrong, but I meant only when they‟re too sick to survive.
9. Straw Man Exaggerating premises and conclusions to make another‟s
argument seem ridiculous. Example: If a Democrat gets elected, then we‟re
only a step away from communist dictatorship.
10. Amazingly Bad Analogy Example: You can train a dog to fetch a stick.
Therefore, you can train a potato to dance.
11. I Am the World Example: I don‟t listen to country music. Therefore, country
music is not popular.
12. Forgetting That There Was a World Before You Were Born Example:
Women never had it that bad in the United States.
13. The Few Are the Same as the Whole Example: Some Elbonians are animal
rights activists. Some Elbonians wear fur coats. Therefore, Elbonians are
14. Hasty Generalization Generalizing from inadequate sampling. Example: The
men in my family have poor singing voices. Therefore, all men are naturally
15. Total Logical Disconnect Example: I enjoy eating pasta because my best
friend is an antelope.
16. Ignorance of Statistics Example: I‟m sure to win the lottery this week because
I spent ALL my money on lottery tickets.
17. Irrelevant Comparisons Example: Being mauled by a grizzly bear isn‟t so bad,
as compared to falling off a cliff.
18. Substituting Famous Quotes For Critical Thought Example: “All things
come to those who wait,” so don‟t bother looking for a job.
19. Circular Reasoning Example: I‟m always right because I‟m smarter than
you. And I know I‟m smarter than you because I‟m always right.
20. Incompleteness As Proof of Defect Example: Your theory of gravity doesn‟t
address the question of why there are no unicorns, so it must be wrong.
21. Ignoring the Advice of Experts Without a Good Reason Example: Sure,
scientists say you shouldn‟t ride a bicycle into the eye of a hurricane, but I
have my own theory.
22. Faulty Pattern Recognition Example: His last six wives were murdered
mysteriously. I hope to be wife number seven.
23. Inability to Understand That Some Things Have Multiple Causes Example:
The Civil War was all about slavery.