LITERARY TERMS & THEMATIC ELEMENTS
EILAND'S ONLINE ENGLISH CLASSES
An intrinsic aspect of critical thinking is persuasion, whether this involves response to
literature or another writer's essays. In order for your own essays to be persuasive, you must
use a logical, well-founded discussion, called an ARGUMENT. Your argument will be a response
to either the ideas set forth in a persuasive essay or piece of literature (primary source),
or as a response to someone else's response to literature or another primary source (a
secondary source). In either case, your own arguments are required to be well-founded,
well-constructed and well thought out. To accomplish this you will need to do several things.
- First, read carefully the work under discussion. Be sure of the author's point.
Establish clearly the various thematic approaches used in the literature piece, as well as
the impact those approaches have on the work.
- Next, determine your response. Be prepared to explain why you feel that way. Find
examples from the primary work to support your analysis. If you cannot find support, or
there is a significant amount of material in the work that denies your point of view, it is
likely you are misreading the work and will need to rethink your stance.
- Next, find secondary sources that either discuss the thematic approaches used or that
respond to the work specifically. Although you are not required to agree with these
sources, you are required to establish how the authors have come to their points of view, and
if you do agree, you must find primary source material to support it. If you disagree,
you must find primary source evidence that will refute the secondary source in a credible
- What then follows is a series of steps in formulating your argument. You must keep these
factors in mind as you create your essay in order to create a credible, persuasive essay.
- Define Terms:
- Clearly establish the specific meanings of the terms being used. This becomes
important when the terms may be taken more than one way (see AMBIGUOUS ARGUMENTS below).
You may also find that certain authors deliberately misuse words or misdirect the reader in
order to create a convincing argument.
- Use Solid Evidence:
- Choose your support from primary and secondary sources carefully. The textual
(a quote from a story or an essay) or statistical (specific dates, numbers, research, etc.)
support you choose should be specifically relevant to the point you are making
(see QUOTING YOUR SOURCES discussion). The critical analysis you choose should be
well-supported...in other words, if the critic supports the contention fully, then it is a
good source. If the author's opinion is unsupported or poorly supported, then it is not a
good source...unless you wish to critique it as an example of a poor argument. Also, keep in
mind the bias of the writer: if the writer's perspective is skewed to either unquestionably
favor or undoubtedly dislike another writer or a piece, there is less likelihood of true
enlightenment than if the writer has no preconceived bias. Watch for indications of bias.
If, however, the author shows both sides of an argument and then is able to show how one side
of that argument is superior, it is a good argument.
- Be Reasonable:
- You cannot prove the unprovable, and most authors and critics do have a valid point,
even if you disagree with either their conclusions or the premises on which they are based
(see TOULMIN LOGIC). Your purpose is to find a logical, reasonable response to the work.
That means you must do the following:
Remember, a well-balanced, fairly argued case is far more convincing to ally and foe
alike than is a blatantly one-sided argument.
- research both sides of the argument or issue,
- present those sides as honestly and with as little editing as possible.
- if there is an argument against your view, either:
- show evidence to the contrary or
- concede the point or
- recognize the likelihood that both sides have valid points, even if one side is,
overall, more persuasive.
- Use Logical Reasoning: (see also TOULMIN LOGIC)
- Inductive: particular to general...the conclusions about entire classes of things are
drawn from specific examples of individuals in that group. When there is a small sample,
this leads to faulty reasoning in that the small section you are aware of may not accurately
reflect the state of the group as a whole. For example, if you were to see on the news that five
robberies occurred and all were committed by young men, the assumption--the conclusion--might
be that all young men are robbers or dangerous. The fact that news tell us only about aberrant
behavior and fails to report the millions of young men who not only did no harm, but helped
others, is important information when evaluating such a case. If however, we see statistical
information that shows that of all the violent crimes in the United States, 90% were committed
by persons who knew the victim, we could correctly assume that friends and acquaintances are
far more dangerous than strangers, and the large sample (a large country's crime statistics)
would support that contention. In any case, there is a logical leap, and there is always the
risk that the conclusion is going to be false. You will usually see qualifiers such as likely,
often and usually, rather than absolutes, which are hard to prove this way.
- Deductive: general to particular...the conclusions about an individual case are
derived from a series of general premises and/or assumptions. The most common of these is
the Syllogism. There is usually a major premise that is part of generally accepted knowledge.
The minor premise is a more specific statement that is related to the major. If these
statements are true, then the conclusion must be true. For instance,
Major: All insects have six legs, antennae and an exoskeleton.
Minor: The earwig is an insect.
Conclusion: The earwig has six legs, antennae and an exoskeleton.
Notice that if the information were placed in a different order, this would not necessarily
Major: All insects have six legs, antennae and an exoskeleton.
Minor: The earwig has six legs, antennae and an exoskeleton.
Conclusion: The earwig is an insect.
This syllogism is not TRUE because there is no statement that establishes that there are
not creatures other than insects that have six legs, antennae and exoskeletons (like lobsters,
if you don't count the claws).
Likewise, if either premise is false, then the conclusion is FALLACIOUS.
Major: All trees have leaves.
Minor: The oak is a tree.
Conclusion: The oak tree has leaves.
This is FALLACIOUS because the main premise that all trees have leaves is false...some have needles.
Fallacious syllogisms can also be derived from illogically linking the two premises, even if,
individually, they are true.
Major: All dogs have canine teeth.
Minor: My cat has canine teeth.
Conclusion: My cat is a dog.
This particular syllogism is Fallacious because there is no established cause and effect relationship between the premises and the conclusion. The argument never establishes that having canine teeth means one is a dog.
The important aspect of deductive reasoning is the tight control of the premises. If the
premises are accepted, then there is no choice but to accept the conclusion. These conclusions
are more closely defined and therefore less error prone. They are also harder to prove.
The bottom line is that most logical arguments are based on both deductive and inductive
reasoning. There is substantial evidence and support for well-founded premises, as well as
logical links between premises. Look for these to avoid accepting Fallacious Arguments or
creating them yourself.
- Avoid Logical Fallacies (See FALLACIES discussion).
© T. T. Eiland, January 1998
Last modified: April 6, 2000