An Introduction to Reasoning: Real-World Reasoning

Image from Gerd Altmann, Creative Commons

By Dr. Cathal Woods
Professor of Philosophy
Virginia Weslayan College


Reasoning and Critical Reasoning

To reason is to use some propositions as reasons for accepting another proposition. For example: “This cheese is mouldy. So, I should not eat it.” Here, one proposition is a reason or premise and the other is the target or conclusion.

Reasoning produces an inference. An inference is the premise(s) and the conclusion put together in a set.

When an inference is created by an individual for herself, she is said to be inferring.

An inference can be presented to an audience in order that the audience will come to believe the target based on the reasons. Presenting an audience with an inference is arguing.

In inferring and arguing, the reasons serve as reasons-for-believing. Reasons can also serve as reasons-which-explain (or more precisely, reasons-which-causally-explain). For example: “The game was cancelled because the pitch was frozen.”. “The pitch was frozen.” is the reason or cause, “The game was cancelled.” is the target or effect.

The propositions expressing the cause(s) and effect form an explanation. Explanations are created by reasoning about causes, and, once created, explanations can be offered to an audience in an act of explaining.

In sum, reasons can be used by a person as reasons-for-believing (which creates an inference), given (to an audience) as reasons-for-believing (as premises in an inference), or given as reasons-which-explain (causes in an explanation).

Although inferring involves using reasons (for oneself) to arrive at a target, while arguing and explaining involve giving reasons and target (to an audience), for ease of reference we will speak of all three as reason-giving.

Since both inferring and arguing involve inferences, we can collapse these two into one category. This allows to speak more simply, of inferences and explanations.

To reason critically is to reason about reason-giving. Or, to reason critically is to reason about inferences and explanations. Or, to reason critically is to form an inference which has, as a conclusion, a proposition about whether or not the inference or explanation under consideration is good.

Or, critical reasoning is the evaluation of reason-giving. “Critical” means “to judge”. So, we have theater critics, wine critics, livestock judges, and many more. Theater critics judge whether or not the play they are watching is a good play. Wine critics judge whether or not the wine they are tasting is a good wine. Livestock judges judge whether or not the horse, cow, etc. that they are looking at is a good horse, cow, etc. Critical reasoners judge whether or not the inference or explanation is a good one.

Critical reasoning is reasoning about reason-giving. Critical reasoning is evaluating reason-giving. Critical reasoning is judging the quality of reason-giving. Critical reasoning is quality control for reason-giving.

All forms of judgment operate by comparing the play/wine/horse/inference/ explanation/etc. under consideration to the standards for good plays/wines/horses/ inferences/explanations/etc.

Thus, since critical reasoning is the judgment of reason-giving, becoming a judge of reason-giving requires becoming an expert in the standards of good reason-giving and being able to apply them to the inferences and explanations that you see and hear.

There are lots of different patterns of reason-giving. RW (and P&C) will make you familiar with many of the patterns for inferences. (I&S considers explanations.)


Why is this called real-world reasoning? The answer is that the examples of reasoning aren’t presented in symbols but instead in a natural language, in this case English. This matters because humans who present their reasoning in speech or writing often do so very sloppily. Moreover, because speakers just want to get other people to believe as they do, they sometimes skirt the rules of proper reasoning. Plus, real-world examples are actually about something, and this something might be emotionally charged. Using symbols, by contrast, automatically avoids all of these difficulties.

In some senses, then, it’s a lot easier to be a logician (using symbols) than it is to be a critical reasoner (using a natural language): logicians just deal with the relationship between sentences and they don’t have to deal with the humans, like critical reasoners do. Most schools and colleges that have a critical reasoning course and a logic course put the critical reasoning course before the logic course (probably because humans have a tendency to freak out when they see symbols). But a good case can be made for doing the logic first, because you don’t have to deal with the imperfections and can focus solely on the connection between the reasons and the target. Then you can go on to deal with the messy human reasoning.

Some of what follows is explicitly about how humans are poor reasoners in these various ways: Reason Substitutes is about how speakers try to avoid giving reasons for their claims; Problems With Meaning is about how the meaning of words used is often imprecise; Ignoring Confidence Indicators gives you practice in ignoring the words speakers use to tell you that their reasoning is great; Warrants is all about how speakers often fail to give complete arguments.

So, RW will make you familiar with lots of patterns of good reasoning and it will alert you to various ways in which the pieces of reasoning that you encounter “in the wild” go wrong.


Here is a table of all of the parts of Real-World Reasoning (RW). You can refer back to it when reading the discussion that follows.

To reason critically is to evaluate an inference (or explanation – see I&S). Before we can evaluate an inference, however, various other tasks are required. The first thing to realize that not all “speech” (which for our purposes will include both speaking and writing) presents reasoning. So, as a very preliminary step, you have to determine whether or not the speaker is presenting a piece of reasoning. We have to be able to distinguish reasoning from non-reasoning. In RW, this is called Classifying. However, the rest of RW will present only examples of reasoning. This is highly artificial, of course — in the real world, you do a lot of classifying of speech.

If you think we are indeed dealing with a piece of reasoning, you next need to analyze it. To analyze is to break down. In the case of an inference, we break it down into the target claim and the reasons being offered for believing the target claim.

There are two other tasks that you need to do before evaluating a piece of reasoning. Although these two are not strictly ‘analyzing’ in the sense of ‘breaking down’, you should consider them as part of the general process of analyzing. If it helps, think of “analyzing” as the broader process of asking “What is the speaker saying?”

One is to get clear on the meaning of each proposition in the passage. If you don’t even know what the target proposition means, or what the propositions expressing the reasons mean, you can’t think about whether the reasons provide good reason for believing the target. Problems With Meaning tries to articulate the various kinds of difficulties there can be with meaning but the basic idea is that you should always be sure to ask: What do the propositions involved in this piece of reasoning (both the reasons and the target) mean? (Getting clear on the meaning of each proposition is a necessity if we are to say whether the propositions are true or false, which is one of the tasks of evaluation.)

The other task that needs to be done before evaluating is to think about the structure of the piece of reasoning. The most basic structure is of course the difference between reasons and target. But  another basic question you can ask about the structure is: If the speaker presents more than one reason, is she putting the two (or however many reasons there are) reasons together in order to justify believing the target claim, or might she in fact be presenting two pieces of reasoning, thinking that either reason is reason enough to accept the claim?

In summary, analyzing — understood broadly as ‘clarifying what the speaker is saying’ — involves:

  1. classifying the speech as reasoning (if it’s not reasoning, you’ll need other skills to deal with it, not the ones in RW),
  2. analyzing it into reasons and target,
  3. understanding the meaning of the propositions (and clarifying the meaning of each proposition as needed), and,
  4. thinking about the structure of the inference.

The broader purpose of analyzing is to bring out all of the aspects of what the speaker is saying. Only when you have clarified what the speaker’s target claim is, what her reasons are, what each proposition means, can you begin to evaluate.

When you are confident that you are dealing with an inference, with reasons and target separated, and each one with a clear meaning, and (if there are multiple reasons, or targets, or reasons for and against) the structure clear, you can go on to evaluate it.

Evaluating involves two steps. As mentioned already, one part of evaluating an inference is to think about the truth of the reasons. But there’s nothing here about this task, because this task depends on knowing about lots and lots and lots of subjects. In other words, to decide whether or not a proposition is true involves subject-specific knowledge, and this cannot hope to cover all of the subjects that people talk about. It would take forever: there are millions (billions?) of things that humans reason about and so there are millions of different propositions they might use as reasons. For example, if the speaker is reasoning about the role of the tank in World War I, you’re going to need to verify some statements about tanks and military operations in the 1910s. RW can’t be a big book of information about every subject under (and including) the sun. (That’s Wikipedia.)

Thus, the emphasis is on the other task, evaluating the strength of the reasoning. As far as evaluating the truth of the reasons is concerned, you can either look up the proposition on the internet, and/or get used to writing “I don’t know” over and over. (Admitting ignorance is actually a good thing to practice; humans hate saying “I don’t know”!)

However, it is important to realize that evaluating the truth of the reasons is a different task from evaluating the degree to which the reasons, if true, would make the target claim true. Humans get the two tasks – evaluating the reasons and evaluating the reasoning – easily confused: they think that if the reasons are true they must support the target claim. Not so! (Also, when they already they already believe the target, they think that the reasons must provide good support for believing it. Not so!)

Because speakers are often bad at finding reasons that actually support their targets, they often tell the audience that the reasons are really great reasons for believing the target. So, there is a section called Ignoring Confidence Indicators which is about ignoring the words and phrases speakers use to tell you that their target is well-justified by the reasons. By using these words and phrases, speakers are effectively telling you that you don’t need to think about whether or not the reasons on offer are good reasons for believing the target. You need to ignore these because you should be the boss of your brain; don’t let anyone tell you to switch off your critical capacities.

Once you have mastered the difference between the truth of the reasons and the strength of the reasoning, the next step is to familiarize yourself with the patterns of reasoning that can be used to establish a target claim. If you can match the piece of reasoning to a pattern that you know is good, then you know the reasoning is good.

What’s a pattern of reasoning? Here’s a quick example: Mammals produce milk for their young. Humans are mammals. So, humans produce milk for their young. This pattern is called “Instantiation” because humans are an instance of mammals and what’s true (producing milk for their young) of the general class (mammals) is true of the instance (humans). Don’t worry too much about the name “Instantiation” (though names make for handy psychological shortcuts); hopefully you recognize the pattern. There are a number of places in RW which will introduce to a variety of patterns – reasoning using sources, character, and motives; reasoning about options (a.k.a. decision-making); reasoning using emotions; and a variety of patterns from grammar and logic. When you know how they should go, it is easy to say whether the piece of speech or text you are considering is good.

All of these patterns will be familiar to you. You might wonder: If all of these patterns are familiar, what’s the point of practicing them? Two answers: one is that speakers are lazy and sloppy and as a result often present incomplete reasons (the example of Instantiation above is actually incomplete), the other is that evaluators are lazy and sloppy and often do an incomplete job of evaluation. You need to learn about the patterns, therefore, so that you can flesh out the reasons that the speaker should have included and so that you can do a proper evaluation. On the one hand, if you know the patterns, you will be able to know what pattern the speaker is trying to use even if she doesn’t match the pattern completely. And, if you know the patterns, you know when the reasoning is good.

When you have become familiar with all of these patterns, you will be able to recognize that the imperfect, natural-language, inferences that you find in everyday speech and writing are typically a partial match with a pattern you already know. Once you have identified the pattern, you can supply the missing reasons or warrants to the speaker’s inference.

Adding warrants falls under the heading of “analyzing”, as you are trying to be clear about the pattern of the speaker’s inference. However, by adding warrants so that the passage now matches a pattern, you are making life easy for yourself when it comes to evaluating the inference: since the pattern matches completely, all you have to do is think about the truth of the reasons (including those you added as warrants).

Basic Classifying


Not every passage involves reasons, even if it contains two or more propositions. Consider the following:

[a] One student speaks to another: First, the instructor passed out the syllabus. Then he went over some basic points about reason-giving. Then he said we should call it a day.

This is a set of propositions describing a temporal sequence of events, and so we might describe the speaker as narrating or reporting. This is not an example of reason-giving: none of the propositions provides a reason(s) for another one of the propositions.

Distinguishing ‘Reasons’ from ‘No Reasons’

When confronted with a passage, you need to classify it as being a case of reason-giving or non-reason-giving. For short, we will classify each passage as involving “Reasons” or “No Reasons”. Reasons can be involved either as reasons-for-believing (in an inference) or as reasons-which-explain (in an explanation).

The primary way of distinguishing reason-giving from non-reason-giving is by thinking about whether or not some of the propositions can act as reasons for a target proposition. In other words, you try to make the best sense you can of what the speaker is attempting to do in the passage and in particular if the propositions can be related to one another as reason(s) for a target. If the speaker is trying to convince the audience of something or explain something to the audience, she will give reasons. If, on the other hand, she is just reporting or narrating, none of the propositions will function as reasons or a target.

In passage (a) above, none of the propositions seem to provide reasons for another one of the propositions, and the passage is classified as No Reasons. But the following passages are all examples of reasons-for-a-target:

[b] Henry says to Bill: The thermometer reads 78 degrees Fahrenheit. So, it is 78 degrees Fahrenheit.
[c] Jill says to Jack: Jim has been inside all day. So, you should take him for a walk.
[d] Jill says to Jack: Jim peed in the living-room because he was inside all day.

In (b), the first proposition (“The thermometer reads 78 degrees.”) is a reason for believing the second proposition (“It is 78 degrees.”).

In (c), the first proposition (“Jim was inside all day.”) is a reason for accepting the second proposition (“Jack should take him for a walk.”).

In (d), the second proposition (“Jim was inside all day.”) is a reason which explains the first proposition (“Jim peed in the living-room.”).

A second way to tells reason-giving from non-reason-giving is to look for the words or phrases that speakers often use to conjoin the reason(s) and the target. We can call these “flag words”, as they mark the presence of reason-giving.

Here is a list of common flag words:

  • Since
  • So
  • Given that
  • Therefore
  • Because
  • Thus
  • As a result of
  • As a result
  • Here’s why
  • Hence
  • That’s why
  • For this reason

If you see any of these, you know reasons are involved.

Note, however, that this is only a partial list. There are lots more words and phrases that will indicate that the speaker is presenting reasons.

Note also that a passage might not have flag words yet still contain reasons. For example, “I am so screwed. I just failed my exam.” is clearly a reason for a target: “I am so screwed.” is the target and “I just failed my exam.” is a reason.

The possibility that there might not be any flag words/phrases is why looking for flag words is the second way of telling that reasons are being presented. The first way of spotting reasons, just above, is the primary way.

Third, the context, given in italics in front of the passage, might also give you a clue: think about whether or not the context describes a place or situation where people typically give reasons, such as in a debate or on a political talk-show.

Fourth, and finally, the precise words used in the passage can indicate the presence of reasons. In particular, a word like “should” in the target will indicate that the speaker is trying to persuade somebody to believe or do something, which typically involves giving reasons.

There are three steps in the process of classifying passages:

  1. Read the passage carefully.
  2. Classify the passage as involving Reasons or No Reasons by (i) identifying propositions that are acting as reasons for a target, (ii) looking for flag words, (iii) paying attention to contextual clues, and (iv) paying attention to the precise words used.
  3. Explain your classification in writing.

Here is a passage that has been classified in accordance with the procedure above:

On a talk-radio sports show: Cal Ripken has appeared in 19 All-Star games. He was a World Series champion in 1983. His number has been retired by the Orioles. For these reasons, he deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame.

Basic Classifying: Reasons. For three reasons:

  1. The words “for these reasons” is a flag-phrase, telling us that the previous sentences were reasons.
  2. The word “deserves” in “Cal Ripken deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame.” suggests that the speaker is trying to convince the talk show’s audience by giving them reasons for accepting his recommendation. The fact that he has accomplished these feats is supposed to be sufficient reason to induct Ripken into the Hall of Fame.
  3. Finally, the context – a talk-radio sports show – is the kind of forum where people like to make claims and (hopefully) back them up with reasons. Radio can describe sporting action, but a lot of programming is debate.

Advanced Classifying

Justifying and Explaining

Basic Classifying discusses how to classify passages as involving Reasons or No Reasons. But it is possible to be more precise in classifying passages. One important distinction is between reasons used to justify a new belief and reasons used to explain (specifically, to causally explain, that is, making clear the cause of some event).

Belief-justification and explanation are easily confused because English uses the word “reasons” for both reasons-for-believing and reasons-which-explain. When we justify belief, some beliefs (which we call “the reasons”) justify believing another belief; when we (causally) explain, some causes (which we also call “the reasons”) explain how or why the target event happened. To repeat:

Justifying belief occurs when the reason(s) act as reason(s) for believing something new. That is, the reasons (are supposed to) justify belief of the target. The reasons (are supposed to) convince an audience to accept a target.

Explaining occurs when the reason(s) act as reasons for how or why the target comes to be. That is, the reasons causally explain the target. The reasons are other states or events and by giving them as causes for the target event (the effect), they (are supposed to) increase the understanding of the audience.

The crucial difference between justifying and explaining is that justifying a target is what we do when the target hasn’t yet been accepted and explaining is what we do when it has been accepted. To put it another way, the point of justification is to add to what is believed, while the point of explaining is to help increase understanding of what is already believed.

Here is an example; Henry is deciding/has decided to congratulate Jack:

Justifying:    Jack did well on the test. So, I will congratulate him.
Explaining:    I congratulated Jack because he did well on the test.

The fact that Jack did well on the test gives Henry a reason to congratulate him. And if he is asked why he congratulated Jack, he can explain by pointing to the fact that Jack did well on the test.

Here is another example:

Justifying:    Jim is a dog. So, he has a tail.
Explaining:    Jim has a tail because he is a dog.

After we have discussed justifying in the forms of inferring and arguing and become familiar with the words and phrases used when justifying, and become familiar with explaining and its vocabulary, we will return to the task of distinguishing justifying and explaining.

Inferring and Arguing

Within justifying belief, we can be even more precise. We can distinguish between doing so by oneself and presenting the justification to others. This is the difference between inferring and arguing.

In the following example, Holmes is using the fact that the dog did not bark as a reason to arrive at a new belief, that the thief was was someone familiar to the dog:

The stable dog did not bark while the horse was being stolen. So, the thief was someone familiar to the dog.

Holmes realizes that the dog did not bark and this gives him a reason-for-believing the further proposition that the dog knew the thief. Since he himself is arriving at a new belief, Holmes is inferring.

Compare that to the following slightly different scenario, in which Holmes is talking to Watson:

Holmes:     The thief was known to the dog.
Watson:    How can you be sure?
Holmes:    The dog didn’t bark during the theft of the horse.

Here, Holmes presents Watson with reasons for believing the target, so that Watson will follow adopt the target as a new belief. Holmes is arguing.

One way to distinguish between inferring and arguing is that inferring is the process of generating an inference while arguing is the process of presenting an inference to another person who doesn’t already believe the target. An inference is a set of propositions, consisting of the target proposition and the reasons for believing it. When a person infers, she uses the available evidence (the reasons) to arrive at a new belief (the target), thus generating an inference (the reasons and target together), and when a person argues, she presents an inference (reasons and target together) to another person who doesn’t (yet) believe the target.

When we talk about people arguing, we do not mean that they are engaged in a heated exchange of opinions. This is an everyday understanding of argue: we imagine two people shouting at each other with a certain level of insistence and perhaps anger. Such exchanges, however, rarely involve reasons which justify belief of a target. Instead, speakers simply contradict one another without providing reasons for believing their respective positions. Ideally, arguing is an attempt to convince another person of the truth of some proposition by the presentation of reasons-to-believe. (Reason Substitutes describes some of the ways in which people attempt to shortcut proper reason-giving processes.)

The popular meaning of argue does contain some truth insofar as arguing involves non-agreement. People only present inferences to an audience when the audience does not already agree with the target. For example, if speaker A says, “Aesop Rock is the most literate rapper.” and B just says, “I agree.”, there is no need to present reasons to justify belief of the target. For an argument to take place, then, B must not already agree with the target.

There is a wide variety of words that indicate non-agreement. The mildest form of non-agreement is doubt. B might express doubt by saying “It is?”, “Really?”, or “I am not sure.”. A request for reasons, such as “Why do you think that?” also expresses doubt. What we might call “denials”, such as “I don’t believe it.”, “I don’t think so.”, “I think you’re wrong.”, or simply “No!”, indicate that B not only thinks the target is dubious but in fact thinks that it is false.

All of these forms of non-agreement mean that B has another belief(s) which makes B unwilling to accept the target merely because A has said it. In such cases, he will express doubt and ask for reasons. If he is quite confident that A’s position is wrong, he might even ridicule A for her belief by saying things like “You’ve got to be kidding.”, “Rubbish!”, “Bullshit!”, (or even by attacking A’s character, such as the rhetorical question “Are you out of your tiny mind?”.

Can You Argue with Yourself?

When you acquire new information which leads you to a new target, you are inferring. If you realize that the new target is in tension with a target you currently believe, you can be described as arguing with yourself: you are presenting yourself with reasons for believing a (new) target which you doubt (because you already have a contrary belief). You are now faced with a decision: keep the old target or adopt the new one? You’ll probably want to go back and look at the reasons for believing the old target and see which set of reasons is stronger.

The language associated with inferring, arguing, and inferences is sometimes used by speakers and thus alerts you that reason-giving is going on.

The words infer and argue themselves might be used by a speaker and thus help you identify that a passage contains reason-giving and more specifically a justification for believing, and more specifically still, that the speaker is inferring or arguing.

Inferring is often done internally, but a person might say out loud “From <this evidence> I infer <the new belief>.”. Since inferring is a kind of belief-justification and belief-justification is a kind of reason-giving, you can immediately give a complete classification of the passage, as “Reasons – Justifying Belief – Inferring”.

Similarly, the word argue (as in “I would argue that …”) tells you that reason-giving, justifying belief, and arguing are taking place. The target immediately follows the phrase “I will/would argue that …” and then the reason(s) are given. “I will argue that …” means “I will give reasons for believing that …”.

Another word for inference when in the context of arguing is argument. This word is often used when one person is summing up what another person has said, as in, “So your argument is that <target> because <reasons>.”.

In any inference, whether it is made by oneself (inferring) or is presented to an audience (arguing), the reason proposition(s) are called the premise(s). The target proposition is called the conclusion. The premises justify belief of the conclusion. The word conclusion (or conclude) tells you that reason-giving, and more specifically justifying, is taking place. Similarly, a speaker might explicitly indicate that she is justifying a belief by saying “My premises are …” (or justification, grounds, or evidence). She might also say “The reason is …” but you have to be careful with the word reasons since people who are offering an explanation will also talk about reasons. The proposition the speaker is trying to get others to believe – the target, the conclusion – which can also be called the point, the contention (and also, incorrectly and super-confusingly, the argument!) and so she might say something like “my conclusion is justified by the reasons …” or “my position is the conclusion of the following inference …”.

In any inference, whether it is made by oneself or presented to others, the premises can be said to (be thought to) justify, support, make likely, imply, establish, demonstrate, or prove, the conclusion, and the conclusion is said to be supported by, be made likely by, be justified by, be implied by, follow from, be derivable from, or be established by the reasons. People who infer can be described as concluding or drawing the conclusion that … .

The Language of Evaluation

There are also various words which people use to talk about the quality of inferences, such as valid/invalid, sound/unsound, cogent/incogent. These usually only appear when people are evaluating an inference, and they will almost always appear alongside other reason flag words.


When people explain they give an explanation.

An explanation makes something clear. There are various kinds of explanation. Here we are exclusively concerned with causal explanations. A causal explanation is an explanation of how or why some phenomenon (a.k.a. state of affairs, event) comes to be. Phenomena can be specific or general. For example, “This grass is brown.” concerns some specific patch of grass, while “Grass turns brown when deprived of sunlight.” is about grass in general. Either can be causally explained.

The explanation can be of a change in the past – how the continents came to be in their current position or how the computer came to be in the basement – or of a change in the future – why the moon will go dark later tonight – or of a change that comes to be repeatedly – why most trees are bare of leaves each winter.

Causal explanations of phenomena in the material world will involve other elements of the natural world. For example, the browning of the grass is explained in terms of lack of sunlight and various properties of grass.

The world of behavior, on the other hand, will be explained in terms of belief and desire. For example, Henry removed the computer because he believed it was scheduled for repair. Since behavior takes place in the material world, however, a single event can involve both kinds of factors. Explaining how the dog got outside might require both a material factor (“Because the door was open.”) and explanation in terms of desires and beliefs (“Because he wanted to run around freely.”) Both together explain how the dog came to be outside.

An explanation is sought in response to curiosity. If there is no curiosity, there is no need for an explanation. If A witnesses a traffic accident and says, “I saw a crash on Laskin Road today.” and neither A nor his audience is curious about how it happened, A won’t need to offer an explanation.

An explanation might be triggered by any expression of curiosity, from intense phrases such as “I’m dying to know why!” or “Wow!”, to straightforward requests for an explanation such as “Do you know why that happens?”.

Some More Types of Explanation

An explanation makes something clear. Beyond this you will encounter various other kinds of explanation besides causal explanation.

Instructions or “how-to” guides make clear how to produce something or perform some activity. For example, to make clear how to produce tied laces, someone might say “To tie your laces, start by crossing one over the other …”. To do the hokey-cokey, “Put your left leg in, your left leg out, …”.

Definitions: Defining the meaning of a word is giving an explanation of how to use that word, such as “In Irish, “ríomhaire” means “computer”.” or “In English, the word “trustworthy” means “can be relied on as honest”.”.

Compositional explanations make clear what something is by stating what it is composed of and how those parts are structured, such as “Water is comprised of hydrogen and oxygen atoms in a two-to-one ratio.”.

We end this section by considering the vocabulary of explaining.

Explicit use of the word explain or explanation (as in “The explanation is simple, …”) indicates that explaining, is taking place. The reasons can be said to (be thought to) explain or give an account of or give a strong explanation for some thing, which is explained by the reasons.

When giving a causal explanation, the sentences being used to explain are also known as the explanans or the explainers or even just the explanation, and what is being explained is called the explainee, or the explanandum or the (target) state of affairs or phenomenon. Cause and effect are also commonly used in the context of causal explanations for the reasons and the target, and the word because is often used to join the two into a single English sentence: This happened because that happened.

Justifying and Explaining (Again)

Distinguishing between justification and causal explanation can be tricky.

Flag words are of limited help. Consider the following:

The game is cancelled since it is raining heavily.

“Since” is a flag word which is immediately followed by a reason (“It is raining heavily.”) and so we know that the speaker is presenting reasons for a target. But it’s hard to say whether the reason is being offered in order to justify a belief or to explain something. In some contexts, this passage could be an inference, as though the speaker were saying, “Look! It’s raining heavily. I guess the game is (or: will be) cancelled.”. The speaker presents the fact that it is raining heavily as a reason which justifies believing that the game is cancelled. Alternatively, in other contexts this passage could be an explanation. It would be an explanation if the audience wants to know why the game has been cancelled and the speaker is presenting the fact that it is raining heavily as the cause of the cancellation.

The context of the passage often contains clues. Consider the following scenario:

Jack is at the breakfast table and shows no sign of hurrying. Jill says: You should leave now. It’s almost nine a.m. and it takes three hours to get there.

In the context described by the words in italics, Jill is best construed as arguing. Jack’s inaction suggests that he does not believe that he needs to leave now and so Jill provides reasons that might convince him. Notice that there are no reason flag words or phrases in this example.

The precise language used can also help distinguish between justifying or explaining. For example, the word “should” in the conclusion “You should leave now.” suggest that Jill is trying to convince Jack. Words such as “ought” and “should” indicate that the speaker is trying to get the audience to believe something about which they are currently doubtful.

When deciding between justifying and explaining, the main distinguishing factor is whether or not the target is already accepted by the speaker and the audience (if there is one).

Consider the following pair of passages:

Highway repairs begin downtown today. And a bridge lift is scheduled for the middle of rush hour. I predict that traffic is going to be terrible.

Yeah, I know traffic is going to be terrible. It’s because repairs begin downtown today. And a bridge lift is scheduled for the middle of rush hour.

The words “I predict” in the first passage suggest the conclusion is a novel belief. It’s novel even to the speaker – she is inferring. The second passage starts out with the speaker saying “I know” about what is clearly the target, because of the reasons offered subsequently. In the first, therefore, the speaker is using various pieces information to arrive at a new belief, “Traffic is going to be terrible.” is true. The second, on the other hand, is an explanation. The speaker already accepts the target and is trying to describe the causal connections between states of affairs; she is not trying to increase her (or anyone else’s) store of knowledge.

In dialog, you might get a clue about what the audience believes from how they respond to the initial presentation of the target. Speakers begin arguing in response to doubt or disbelief expressed by a skeptical audience. If the speaker asserts “Revolver is the Beatles’s best album.”, the skeptic might express his doubt or disagreement by saying things such as “”It is?”, “Really?”, “I doubt it.”, “I disagree.” or “No way!”, or by explicitly requesting reasons with something like “Why do you think that?” (which is different from “Yes. But why is that?” which calls for an explanation). An explanation, on the other hand, is produced in response to an expression of curiosity such as “Do you know how/why …?”.

Things can change quickly, from explaining to arguing and back again. Consider the following conversation:

Jones:    The reservoir is at a low level because of several releases to protect the downstream ecology.
Smith:    Wait. The reservoir is low?
Jones:    Yeah. I just walked by there this morning. You haven’t been up there in a while?
Smith:    I guess not.
Jones:    Yeah, it’s because they’ve been releasing a lot of water to protect the ecology lately.

Jones might initially intend his first sentence as an explanation, but since Smith does not believe the target (that the reservoir’s water level is low), he will first have to give her reasons for believing that it is low. When challenged, Jones offers evidence from his memory: he saw the reservoir that morning. Once Smith accepts that the water level is low, Jones can restate his explanation (in the last sentence).

When thinking about whether or not the audience already believes the target, keep it in mind that a target can be accepted by the audience on the authority of the text/author as soon as it is uttered.

This kind of thing happens frequently. For example, if you are friends with the speaker, or you trust the speaker (on the topic being mentioned), you will often believe the target and take any reasons as explanatory. Consider the following:

Your friend Bea is on the phone: Kelly is driving me insane. First she told Michael that I was out when I was right there in my room, and then she ate the leftover food I was keeping for lunch today.

In this passage, you accept “Kelly is driving me insane.” as soon as your friend says it. You don’t need any additional convincing: if Bea says Kelly is driving her insane, that’s enough for you to believe it, and Bea expects you to believe it, too. What then follows is then an explanation of how/why Kelly is driving Bea insane.

To be precise, then, we might modify the question “Does the audience already believe the target?” slightly; it might be more accurate to ask “Does the audience believe the the target before the reasons are offered?” If the audience accepts the target as soon as it is uttered, the reasons that follow will be explanatory, not justificatory.

However, if, for some reason, you express a doubt that Kelly is driving your friend insane (perhaps you suspect your friend Bea is being overly dramatic), Bea would have to convince you. She could even use the exact same reasons, but in this context they would serve as reasons-for-believing.

The blue box below explains why it is important to be able to distinguish between belief-justification and causal explanation. If you understand it, you know you have really grasped the difference between them.

Below the blue box you’ll find our procedures (so far) for classifying and analyzing a passage. It includes an enhanced version of Classification Step 2 and a summary of flag words and vocabulary associated with belief-justification and causal explanation.

Explanatory and Non-Explanatory Reasons

The reasons used in an explanation can be used (perhaps with a little rewriting) in an inference. For example, if extremely cold weather in Europe is explained by the movement of air from Siberia, in another context the movement of air from Siberia could be used to infer or to argue that it is or will be extremely cold.

The reverse, however, is not always true: not all inferences are based on reasons that are also explanatory, and so not every inference could be reconfigured as an explanation of how or why the conclusion is the case. Compare the following pair of inferences:

Jack says traffic will be bad this afternoon. So, traffic will be bad this afternoon.

Oh no! Highway repairs begin downtown today. And a bridge lift is scheduled for the middle of rush hour. Traffic is going to be terrible!

The reasons in the second inference could (in another context) be used to justify belief of the conclusion could be used in an explanation. Indeed, someone who accepts the target on the basis of these reasons will also have an explanation ready to offer if someone should later ask “Traffic was terrible today! I wonder why?”.

This is not true of the first passage: bad traffic is not explained by saying “Jack said it would be bad.”. The reason “Jack said that traffic would be bad.” can only be used to justify the belief “Traffic will be bad.”; it cannot be used to explain the bad traffic.

Belief-justification based on an understanding of how the world works is more satisfying than one which appeals to the authority or expertise of others, because we get both a justification and an explanation. Although arguments based on explanatory premises are preferred, we must often rely on other people for our beliefs, because of constraints on our time and access to evidence. But they (or at least someone at the beginning of the chain of testimony) should hold the belief on the basis of empirical experience.

Consider another example of inference from a source:

The IPCC, a panel of experts from various countries, has stated that human activity has an impact on climate. So, that’s how it is.

In this passage, a speaker provides a reason for believing that human activity has an impact on climate. The reason is that an international panel believes so. The speaker provides a premise which might justify adopting the conclusion as a belief. This premise, however, does not explain why or how human activity impacts climate. It might thus be a justification, but it could not be used as an explanation. If one speaker tells another that something is so because some source says it, you are observing an argument.

Another kind of belief-justification that uses non-explanatory reasons is wishful thinking, that is, believing something because it makes you feel good to believe it or that you can avoid feeling bad by not believing it. Consider the following example:

It would be super-depressing to think that Obama has won a second term [as U.S. president]. So, he hasn’t won.

This is not a secure way to justify a belief. More importantly for present purposes, even if this is a sufficient reason-for-believing, a reason of the type <the belief would be pleasant or unpleasant to hold> could not be used to expand our understanding of the target (assuming it were true).

The same is true of beliefs you act upon because doing so will bring about something beneficial or allow you to avoid something harmful. Consider the following:

If I act in accordance with the belief that Bill is the best basketball player on the team, Jack will be mad at me, which I want him to be. So, Bill is not the best.

If I believe that <my country/team/school/etc.> is the greatest, I’ll fit in. And I want to fit in. So, <my country/team/school/etc.> is the greatest.

These reasons might convince you to act as if the belief were true, but they couldn’t be used to explain why Bill is not the best player or why <my country> is the greatest.)

Another important type of non-explanatory reasons is called “inference by elimination”. Elimination works by listing the available options and then eliminating all but one. The one that remains is then taken to be true. For example, someone might infer from the fact that the dog is either inside or outside and the fact that the dog is not inside that the dog is outside. Elimination of the alternatives might be a fine way to justify belief that the dog is outside but it does not tell us how or why the dog is outside.

The fact that the propositions from an explanation can be used in either an inference or argument can allow audiences to become convinced, even when the speaker thinks he is giving an explanation. Consider the following case:

Bill and Henry have just finished playing basketball.

Bill:    Man, I was terrible today.
Henry:     I thought you played fine.
Bill:     Nah. It’s because I have a lot on my mind from work.

Bill and Henry disagree about what is happening — arguing or explaining. Henry doubts Bill’s initial statement, which should provoke Bill to argue (i.e. to present reasons for believing). But instead, he appears to plough ahead with his explanation. What Henry can do in this case, however, is take the reason that Bill offers as an explanation (that Bill is preoccupied by issues at work) and use it as a premise in an inference with the conclusion “Bill played terribly.”. Perhaps Henry will think (to himself): “It’s true that Bill has a lot on his mind from work. And whenever a person is preoccupied, his basketball performance is likely to be degraded. So, perhaps he did play poorly today (even though I didn’t notice).”.

Basic Analyzing

All inferences and explanations involve at least two propositions (a.k.a. statements, claims): there will be at least one proposition expressing a reason and there will be one proposition expressing a target. “Target” is the word we use for the proposition for which reasons are given. Consider the following example:

Today is Monday the 5th. So, next Monday is the 12th.

“Today is Monday the 5th.” is a proposition and it expresses a reason. In the second sentence, “Next Monday is the 12th.” is a proposition and it expresses the target. The word “So” at the start of the second sentence is a reason conjunction which tells us that the propositions are conjoined together as a reason and a target. Because such words tell us that the propositions are related to one another as reason(s) to target, we will call also them “flag” words or “indicator” words.

The English language contains a variety of conjunctions/flag words (and flag phrases) that speakers can use to conjoin reason(s) and target. Here are some of the most common:

  • Since
  • So
  • Given that
  • Therefore
  • Because
  • Thus
  • As a result of
  • As a result
  • Here’s why
  • Hence
  • That’s why
  • For this reason

Some of these – the ones on the left – conjoin a reason and a target in a single sentence. For example:

Jack is getting a drink of water because he is thirsty.

In this sentence, “because” indicates that we are looking at reasons and a target; the reason is “He (Jack) is thirsty.” and the target is “Jack is getting a drink of water.”. In English, the parts of our example could also come in reverse order:

Because he is thirsty, Jack is getting a drink of water.

Notice, however, that in both versions it is the reason that follows immediately after the word “because”. All of the flag words in bold on the left are like this: the reason follows immediately after the flag word or phrase. Here are examples using the other bolded items:

Since it is already nine o’clock, I will be late to class.
Given that you have admitted breaking the rules, you will be disqualified.
Jack got acid reflux as a result of eating too much at dinner.

Each of these examples is a single sentence containing a reason, a target, and a flag phrase; and in each of these examples, the reason follows immediately after the flag word/phrase, whether that word/phrase is at the beginning of the sentence or in the middle. (Notice that “eating too much at dinner” is not exactly a proposition. We will return to this later.)

In the abstract, the bolded items follow the following patterns:

Since <reason>, <target>.
Given that <reason>, <target>.
<target> because <reason>.
<target> as a result of <reason>.

The last conjunction in the left-hand column, “Here’s why”, is a bit unusual. It is listed on the left because it conjoins reason(s) and target in a single sentence, but it is not in bold because the target immediately follows the words “here’s why” with the reason being given after a colon. Here is an example:

Here’s why you should take a course in critical reasoning: it will help you resist the persuasive power of advertisements.

or in the abstract:

Here’s why <target>: <reason>.

The flag words/phrases on the right are like “here’s why” in that they will be followed by the target; but they are different from all of the items on the left because the reason will be in a separate sentence. For example:

Jack is thirsty. So, he is getting a drink of water.

or in the abstract:

<reason>. So, <target>.

“So” tells you that the target is coming up and that what you just heard was a reason. But unlike the previous examples, the reason is in a separate sentence.

Here are examples using some of the other items on the right:

Smith scored 90 on her test. As a result, she was awarded her license.
Henry admitted stealing the computer. That’s why he was fired.
Jack ate too much at dinner. For this reason, he got acid reflux.

Here are some more examples; the words in italics give the context and are not part of the passage. First:

Henry gets some bad news: I failed my logic exam. So, I failed the logic course.

The word “So” in the second sentence connects the two propositions as reason and target. The two propositions are “I (Henry) failed the logic exam.” and “I (Henry) failed the logic course.”. The first one is the reason and the second one is the target.

Here is an example of a reason and target in a single sentence using “because”:

Henry and Smith see Jack zooming down the street in his car. Henry says: Jack is driving at high speed because he is late for work.

Here we have two propositions, “Jack is driving at high speed.” and “Jack is late for work.”. The word “because” connects the two propositions; the reason immediately follows the word “because”.

Here is an example using “since”, which puts reason and target in a single sentence, separated by a comma:

Smith says to Jones: Since you want to get in shape, you should come jogging with me.

Here we have two propositions. The reason is “You (Jones) want to get in shape.” and this appears immediately following the “since”. The target is “You (Jones) should come jogging with me (Smith).” and this appears after the comma.

Be careful with “since” when analyzing a passage into target and reason(s). “Since” can either introduce a proposition or it can describe an extent of time within a proposition. The proposition “Jack has been sick since Thursday.” cannot be broken into a reason and a target. “Since” must conjoin propositions if the sentence is to be broken up.


Another reason conjunction (in English) is “for”, which is used like “because” or “since” to indicate the reason(s) (though it can be found at the start of a separate sentence), as in “Jack gave Jill a lift to the airport for he had promised to do so.” or “”St. Peter, let these men into heaven, for they have served their time in hell.”

But “for” isn’t used that much any more.


So far, the examples have all had one reason for the target. It is possible to have more than one reason. When there are two or more reasons, each one might be expressed in its own sentence, or they might be joined together in a single sentence.

The most common way of conjoining two reasons is by putting the word “and” between the two reason propositions. The following example expresses two reasons in its first sentence:

On a TV finance show: Baby-boomers are living longer than the elderly ever have and medical care is more expensive than ever before. So, they should save more for retirement.

The first sentence gives two reason propositions: “They (boomers) are living longer than the elderly every have.” and “Medical care is more expensive than ever before.”.

Like the word “since”, the word “and” doesn’t always conjoin reasons. Consider the following:

Commenting on a race: Bolt finished between Gay and Carter. So, he came second.

Because the first sentence makes use of the word “and”, it is tempting to think that it contains more than one proposition and, thus, that it can be broken up. This, however, is not the case. After all, the word “and” in this sentence is not conjoining two distinct propositions; it is conjoining the names of two runners. There is no way to break up the sentence into two propositions: the word “between” requires that the subject is between one thing and another thing.

When there are more than two reasons, commas might be used. For example:

Jill is describing a meeting from earlier in the day: I was there, Smith was there, and Jones was there. So, there were at least three students there.

There are three reasons in the first sentence: “Jill was there.”, “Smith was there.”, and “Jones was there.”.

We always break up conjoined reasons, even when those propositions work together to get to the target.

Not every complex sentence, however, should be broken up.

Propositions joined with “or” must be treated as one proposition. If you were to separate such sentences into two propositions you would change the meaning of the proposition. For example, “The dog ran either to the left or the right.” cannot be rendered as “The dog ran to the left.” and “The dog ran to the right.” for the original proposition asserts only that the dog took one of the two paths, not that he ran to the left and to the right.

The same problem occurs if you attempt to split up “If …, then …” propositions. For example, “If you are late to the theatre, you won’t be admitted until the second act.” isn’t asserting either “You are late to the theatre.” or “You won’t be admitted until the second act.”. Thus, “if …, then …” propositions must not be broken up.

(Note also that a conjunction occurring within any part of an ‘or’ sentence or an ‘if-then’ sentence should not be broken up. For example, “Either Jill will go first, or else Smith and Jones will go first.”. The conjunction here is the second part of an “either … or else …” sentence and should be left alone.)

Now that we have seen both a reason and a target in a single sentence and multiple reasons in a single sentence, you can probably see that both could happen in a single sentence. In other words, a single sentence can contain multiple reasons and a target. Consider the following passage:

On a cable sports show: Since Cal Ripken has appeared in 19 All-Star games, was a World Series champion in 1983, and has had his number retired by the Orioles, he deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame.

This is a single sentence but it contains three reasons and a target. The first word is “since”, which tells you to expect reason(s), a comma and a target. And in fact there are three reasons, with a comma between the first two reasons and an “and” before the third one. After the third reason, we get a comma and (finally!) the target: “Ripken deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame.”.

Finally, here is an example of a reason embedded within a sentence that begins with a target flag word (“so”):

Some people have been able to give up cigarettes by getting serious about their problems and using their willpower. So, since everyone could do this, there’s no excuse for anyone who wants to give up cigarettes but hasn’t.

The last sentence begins with  “So”, which indicates a target, but a “since” immediately follows it and “since” indicates a reason. The reason is “Everyone could do this.”. The target is then delivered: “(So) … there is no excuse for anyone who wants to give up cigarettes but hasn’t.”.

Types of Conjunction

“And” and the negatives “neither” and “nor” are plain conjunctions: they put two things together and don’t say anything about the relationship between them.

“But”, “however”, and “although” are contrasting conjunctions: they put two things together and indicate that there is some tension between the two things. You won’t see contrasting conjunctions in RW until we look at objections.

“So”, “because” and all of the others we have considered here are reason conjunctions.

Marking Up Passages

We are going to analyze passages that contain reasons by marking them up in the following ways:

  1. put in parentheses any words/phrases that conjoin reason(s) and target (regular conjunction words like “and” are left alone)
  2. underline the target
  3. bracket each proposition used to express a reason
  4. number the propositions expressing the reasons and the target.

(Note that conjoining words/phrases are not part of the reasons or target; do not underline them and (if possible) do not bracket them.)

Here are some examples analyzed according to this four-step procedure:

(Here’s why) 1 you should take a course in critical reasoning: 2 [it will help you resist the persuasive power of advertisements.]

Henry gets some bad news: 1 [I failed my logic exam.] (So,) 2 I failed the logic course.

Henry and Smith see Jack zooming down the street in his car. Henry says: 1 Jack is driving at high speed (because) 2 [he is late for work.]

Smith says to Jones: (Since) 1 [you want to get in shape], 2 you should come jogging with me.

On a TV finance show: 1 [Baby-boomers are living longer than the elderly ever have] and 2 [medical care is more expensive than ever before]. (So,) 3 they should save more for retirement.

Commenting on a race: 1 [Bolt finished between Gay and Carter.] (So,) he came second.

On a cable sports show: (Since) 1 [Cal Ripken has appeared in 19 All-Star games,] 2 [was a World Series champion in 1983,] and 3 [his number has been retired by the Orioles], 4 he deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame.

During a downpour: 1 It started raining (because) 2 [the atmospheric pressure dropped.]

1 [Some people have been able to give up cigarettes by getting serious about their problems and using their willpower.] (So), (since) 2 [everyone could do this,] 3 there’s no excuse for anyone who wants to give up cigarettes but hasn’t.

Note that flag words/phrases are not part of the sentences they appear in. So, do not underline them in the target and, if possible, do not bracket them within the reasons. Here is an example where a flag word is not underlined but occurs in the target:

A politician on TV: 1 [It takes a despicable person to politicize the death of a young child.] 2 [Smith has tried to tie young Molly’s death to the President’s policies.] 3 Smith is (therefore) despicable.

The word “therefore” in the target is not underlined, even though it occurs in the middle of the target proposition.

Advanced Analyzing

Introduction and Standard From

Basic analyzing of passages that contain reason-giving involves the following steps:

  1. Put in parentheses words/phrases that conjoin reason(s) and target.
  2. Underline the target.
  3. Bracket each proposition used to express a reason.
  4. Number the propositions expressing the reasons and the target.

There are two more steps still to be added to our procedure for analyzing passages. The first of these, Analysis Step 5, requires that each reason and the target be a proposition and written in full. In Sections 2 and 3, we discuss various ways in which you will need to rewrite the passage in order to meet this demand. Section 4 then discusses things from passages that you can leave out.

In order to make sure that each proposition makes sense on its own, it is helpful to actually write each proposition on a line by itself and make sure that each proposition makes sense (as much as possible) on its own. To do this we will use what is called standard form.

To put a passage in standard form, we put the reason(s) above a dashed line and the target below that line. The context is removed. The flag words are also removed. (And if you have done Advanced Classifying, a “J” (for “justifies believing”) or an “E” (for “causally explains”) can be placed to the left of the dividing line.)

Here is a simple example of a passage that has been analyzed and then put in standard form:

Jack was hoping to go for a walk: 1 [It is raining.] (So,) 2 I’ll stay at home.

It is raining.


Jack will stay at home.

The propositions in the standard form get the same number as in the basic analysis. In this case, the target is spoken after the reason and so in the standard form the numbers are sequential. Had the target been spoken first and numbered as proposition (1), it would get the number (1) in the standard form, even though it is listed last in the standard form.

Any changes that can be made to the propositions are included in the standard form. In this example, notice that “I” in proposition (2) has become “Jack”. This is an example of making a pronoun explicit, which we turn to now .

Indexicals, Complex Propositions, Verbal Nouns

A first way in which propositions might need to be rewritten is to make explicit pronouns and other indexicals (pointers). Consider the following version of the willpower inference:

A letter to the editor: 1 [Some people have been able to give up cigarettes by using their willpower.] 2 [Everyone can draw on his or her own willpower.] (That’s why) 3 anyone who wants to can do it.

The words “wants to” and “do it” in the end of the target/conclusion (3) refer to the action of giving up cigarettes. The speaker can abbreviate the full proposition – “Anybody who wants to give up cigarettes can give up cigarettes.” – because she is not talking about giving anything else up. Since she must be referring to giving up cigarettes, it is unnecessary to repeat the same thought twice.

There are many ways in which speakers will avoid repeating themselves. Most commonly, look out for sentences containing pronouns (such as “I”, “you”, “they”), demonstrative adjectives (such as “this”, “those”), or adverbs like “so” and “thusly”.

Although it is natural to abbreviate and avoid repetition, when you analyze the passage into separate propositions you will provide each proposition in full. We do this because in order to evaluate reason-giving we must know what the propositions say and it is good to be careful: sometimes something important is lost or obscured when propositions are abbreviated.

The process of analysis now includes putting the passage in standard form and rewriting propositions as needed. The willpower inference is analyzed as follows:

A letter to the editor: 1 [Some people have been able to give up cigarettes by using their willpower.] 2 [Everyone can draw on his or her own willpower.] (That’s why) 3 it’s possible for anyone who wants to do it.

Some people have been able to give up cigarettes by using their willpower.
Everyone can draw on his or her own willpower.


It’s possible for anyone who wants to give up cigarettes to give up cigarettes.

First, there is our initial analysis of the passage, using parentheses, brackets, and underlining. Second, there is the analysis of the passage in standard form, with the reasons and target written in full.

A second way in which sentences might need to be rewritten is by breaking up complex sentences, sentences that use conjunctions or commas to combine multiple propositions. Here is an example you have already seen:

Jill is describing a meeting from earlier in the day: Smith, Jones, and I were there. So, there were at least three students there.

The first sentence should be broken into three. Rewriting propositions (1) and (2) in full helps make sense of the brackets around “Smith” and “Jones” and “I were there” in the initial analysis:

Jill is describing a meeting from earlier in the day: 1 [Smith], 2 [Jones] and 3 [I were there]. (So,) 4 there were at least three students there.

Smith was at the meeting.
Jones was at the meeting.
Jill was at the meeting.


There were at least three students at the meeting.

We might like to be more specific about “the meeting” – which meeting is she referring to? – but we can’t be more specific, unfortunately.

Similarly, the sentence “Jack went to the park with Jim, his leash, a tennis ball, and some treats.” would be broken down into four simple propositions: “Jack went to the park with Jim.” “Jack went to the park with Jim’s leash.”, “Jack went to the park with a tennis ball.” and “Jack went to the park with some treats.”.

Another way in which multiple pieces of information can be given in a single English sentence is by using words such as “that”, “which”, and “who”. Consider the sentence “Jack, who is home on leave from the war, is taking Jim for a walk.”. This sentence contains two propositions and should be broken up into “Jack is home on leave from the war.” and “Jack is taking Jim for a walk.”.

In addition to clarifying indexicals and breaking up complex sentences, you should rewrite a sentence when, as part of a larger sentence, a reason or target is not expressed in the form of a proposition but rather as a verbal noun or a noun phrase. Compare:

Jack’s serving in the Army is a result of his admiration for his father.
Jack is serving in the Army because he admires his father.

The first involves a verbal noun (“Jack’s serving in the Army”) and a noun phrase “his admiration for his father”); the second turns each of these into a freestanding propositions (“Jack is serving in the Army.” and “Jack admires his father.”). As part of Analysis Step 5, we turn such phrasings into propositions. The first version would be analyzed as follows:

Jack’s serving in the Army (is a result of) 2 [his admiration for his father.]

Jack admires his father.


Jack is serving in the Army.

To include the possibility that the reasons or target might not appear in propositional form, we will modify step 5 of the process of analysis slightly:

Write the reasons and target in standard form, with each reason and the target in the form of a proposition and written in full.

Propositional Content

An important source of rewriting comes from the fact that propositions are expressed in the form of other types of sentence.

There are many things people can do with sentences: they can describe the world, propose a plan of action, make promises, exclaim (in pain, in anger, in surprise, in dismay, in fear, and others), ask questions, and lots of other things. Here are some examples:

[a] Jack says to Jill: It is a lovely day outside.
[b] Jill says to Jack: You should take Jim for a walk in the park.
[c] Jones says to Smith: Get me a beer!
[d] Bill says to Henry: Is Jack home from Baghdad yet?
[e] Smith says: Ouch!
[f] Jill says: If only the Lakers would win on Saturday!
[g] Henry says to Jack: I apologize for yelling at you.
[h] Smith says to Jones: With this ring I thee wed.

In (a), Jack is informing Jill about the weather outside; Jill can consider whether or not this is a true description of (this part of) the world. (a) is a descriptive proposition.

In (b), Jill is proposing that a certain action is good to do (in this case, that Jack should take Jim (the Great Dane) to the park); Jack can consider whether or not this is a good thing to do. (b) is a practical proposition.

Descriptive and practical propositions are two kinds of proposition. A proposition in general is a sentence offered (proposed) by a speaker for consideration by an audience.

For our purposes, the words “statement”, “claim” and “assertion” are all equivalent in meaning to “proposition”. However, we do not use “sentence” as an equivalent for “proposition”: a proposition is a kind of sentence, but there are other kinds of sentences besides propositions, such as (c) through (h) and lots of others.

None of (c) through (h) is a proposition; in each case, the sentence’s primary purpose is not to propose a description of the world or to propose a course of action. In each case, the speaker is doing something else.

(c) is a command, (d) is a question, (e) is Smith exclaiming in pain, (f) is a wish, (g) is an apology, and (h) forms part of a wedding ceremony – if all goes well, two people will become married. (c) through (h) is just a small sample of the things people can do with words.

In a piece of reason-giving, only a descriptive or practical proposition can be a target, and only a descriptive proposition can be a reason.

Does this mean that you will never see any of the other types of sentence in reason-giving passages? Not quite.

In the context of reason-giving, non-propositions have an implied propositional content. This means that speakers will sometimes will utter a non-proposition but it is the related proposition we’re really going to be interested in.

An implied proposition is the descriptive or practical version of what the speaker is doing with her words. Here are some examples of non-propositions and their implied propositional contents:

[a] Jill is trying to get Jack to take responsibility for Jim running wild: 1 [Jack, you let go of the leash]. 2 You are to blame for Jim’s escape!

Jack, you let go of the leash.


Jack is to blame for Jim’s escape.

[b] A neighboring garden has an unwelcome visitor: 1 [Jim is trampling on my vegetables!]. 2 Get out of my garden!

Jim is trampling on the neighbor’s vegetables.


Jim should get out of the neighbor’s garden.

[c] Jones is talking Henry: 1 [I realize now that the computer was scheduled for repair.] 2 I am sorry that I accused you of stealing it.

Jones realizes now that the computer was scheduled for repair.


Jones is sorry that he accused Henry of stealing the computer.

You can think of the implied propositional content as the proposition that the speaker must accept before she goes on to do something with her words:

In (a), the fact that Jack let go of the leash leads Jill to believe that he is to blame, and once she believes this, she can can go on to blame him.

In (b), the fact that Jim is trampling on the neighbor’s vegetables gives the neighbor reason to believe that it would be good for Jim to get out of the garden, which he then orders Jim to do.

In (c), Jones’s realization gives him a reason for believing that his accusation was mistaken, and then he goes on to apologize.

There is a kind of question that has an implied propositional content. This kind of question is called a rhetorical question. A rhetorical question assumes an answer to the question asked. This implied answer is a proposition, and so the question can be understood as this proposition. Consider the following version of a famous inference:

After death, there is no more perception. Pain is only painful when it is perceived. So, why fear death?

The third sentence is a question, but it is a rhetorical question. The speaker thinks that the answer to this question is obvious and the speaker wants the audience to think of that answer, rather than the question itself. In this case, the implied answer to the question is something like “There is no reason to fear death.”. We analyze as follows:

[After death, there is no more perception.] 2 [Pain is only painful when it is perceived.] (So), 3 why fear death?

After death, there is no more perception.
Pain is only painful when it is perceived.


There is no reason to fear death.

(The conclusion of the argument just above might alternatively have been presented in the form of a command, “Do not fear death!”, which could be understood as the practical proposition “You should not fear death.”, like example (b), above.)

Finally, speakers will sometimes put practical propositions in the form of a question. For example, “Can you please pass the salt?” includes the practical proposition “You should pass the salt.” and “What about coming to the game with me this weekend?” includes the practical proposition “You should come to the game with me this weekend.”. A question is perceived as being a polite way of suggesting to someone that they do something.

Things to Omit

A passage might contain extra words that do not play a part in the reason-giving and which need not be included in an analysis of a passage. This section alerts you to various items you can omit in your analysis. As a result, the job of identifying the reasons and the target might be more accurately described as extracting the reasons and the target from the passage. Analysis Step 6 is:

Explain any omissions.

If a sentence is repeated in a passage, it gets the same proposition number and is underlined in both places. Particularly in the context of arguing, the target often appears more than once, but only for the sake of emphasis; the additional appearance does not add a new proposition. (This is also true for reasons — when a speaker repeats a reason, she does not add any new information and you should use the same number for both appearances.)

Consider the following example, which has been (classified and) analyzed in accordance with all six steps:

A human resources director at Acme Inc. is arguing with the chief executive: 1 We should have an affirmative action policy. (Here’s why.) 2 [Research has confirmed that employers do not review black job applications as thoroughly as applications from whites.] 3 [This leads black people to invest less in education and training,] 4 [which only reinforces the prejudice of employers.] 4 [Affirmative action counteracts this vicious cycle by acting as an incentive for African-Americans to invest in education.] (So), 1 we should have an affirmative action policy.

Reasons – Justifying – Arguing, because of the context and the “should” in the target.

Research has confirmed that employers do not review black job applications as thoroughly as applications from whites.

Not reviewing black job applications as thoroughly as applications from whites leads black people to invest less in education and training.

Black people investing less in education and training only reinforces the prejudice of employers.

Affirmative action counteracts the vicious cycle described in 2, 3, and 4 by acting as an incentive for African-Americans to invest in education.


Acme Inc. should have an affirmative action policy.

The first sentence is omitted because it is repeated in the last sentence.

In this example, the (single) target appears twice, at the opening of the inference and at the end, but it is given the same number (1) in the initial analysis and is listed only once in the standard form.

Repeated propositions are included in the analysis once but some extraneous words, phrases, or even propositions, are omitted entirely. Omissions might be made for a variety of reasons.

First, words or phrases which comment on the quality of the strength of the support that premises give to the conclusion, or comment on how good the explanation is, are omitted. Consider the following passage:

Henry is out hiking and sees a cottage in the distance: There’s smoke coming from that chimney, and there would be smoke coming from that chimney if there were a fire in a fireplace in that house. Thus, in all probability, there is a fire in a fireplace in that house.

The phrase “in all probability” is the speaker’s comment on the strength of the support that the premises give the conclusion. Such comments are not included in our analysis of the target (though they can be bracketed as flag words) and we add an explanation of the omission:

Henry is out hiking and sees a cottage in the distance: 1 [There’s smoke coming from that chimney,] and 2 [there would be smoke coming from that chimney if there were a fire in a fireplace in that house.] (Thus) in all probability, 3 there is a fire in a fireplace in that house.

There’s smoke coming from the chimney the speaker sees.
There would be smoke coming from the chimney the speaker sees if there were a fire in a fireplace in the house.


There is a fire in a fireplace in the house the speaker sees.

“in all probability” was omitted because it is a confidence indicator.

Omit the words that speakers use to describe the quality of their reason-giving. Usually, speakers add words of confidence, though they could add words of uncertainty. For example, if the target is expressed as “Jack must be at the station.” you should rewrite as “Jack is at the station.”. Similarly, if the target is expressed as “So these are probably Al’s boots.” you would omit the “probably”.

The Problem of Saying

Speakers will sometimes tell the audience that they personally think or believe what they are saying. They might even say that they strongly believe what they are saying and raise their voices and pound the table. Consider the following:

Smith is going to play poker with Jack, but Jones has some reservations. She says: Well, I say that Jack is a low-down cheat. So, he will cheat when you play poker with him this weekend.

The fact that Jones says that Jack is a low-down cheat is not really the reason for thinking that Jack will cheat this weekend; rather, what’s important, as a reason supporting the conclusion, is that Jack is a low-down cheat. You can analyze without including “I say that”, as follows:

Smith is going to play poker with Jack, but Jones has some reservations. She says: I say that 1 [Jack is a low-down cheat.] (So,) 2 he will cheat when you play poker with him this weekend.

1  Jack is a low-down cheat.


2 Jack will cheat when you [the audience] play poker with him this weekend.

Similarly, when someone says “I order you to stop playing video games.” (rather than simply “Stop playing video games.”) we are probably meant to understand this sentence as an order, rather than as a proposition about the person’s ordering.

Sometimes, however, the mental attitude is relevant. Consider the following explanation:

Henry is filling Bill in on who was invited and who wasn’t: Jill believes that Jack is a low-down cheat. That’s why she did not invite him to play poker this weekend.

In this example, the fact that Jill believes something about Jack is relevant to the target explainee. Analyze as follows:

Henry is filling Bill in on who was invited and who wasn’t: 1 [Jill believes that Jack is a low-down cheat.] (That’s why) 2 she did not invite him to play poker this weekend.

1  Jill believes that Jack is a low-down cheat.


2 Jill did not invite Jack to play poker this weekend.

This issue of whether the mental attitude is important is sometimes called “the problem of saying” even though the problem occurs not just with saying but with believing or anything similar.

Another source of extraneous verbiage is that speakers might seem to simply wander off and insert a tangent or parenthetical remark. Consider the following argument:

Potatoes are vegetables. They’re my favorite vegetable, in fact. And vegetables are good for you. So, potatoes are good for you.

The fact that potatoes are the speaker’s favorite vegetable will be immediately thought to be irrelevant to the support for the conclusion given by the other premises. If you are confident in this judgment, you can analyze as follows:

1 [Potatoes are vegetables.] They’re my favorite vegetable, in fact. And 2 [vegetables are good for you.] (So,) 3 potatoes are good for you.

If you are not confident, analyze as follows:

1 [Potatoes are vegetables.] 2 [They’re my favorite vegetable], in fact. And 3 [vegetables are good for you.] (So,) 4 potatoes are good for you.

Here is another example, this time in a dialogue:

Al, a fireman, has been killed in a fire.
:    Although the body is badly burned, I am sure this is the body of my friend Al.
Bill:    How do you know?
Henry:    These are the boots of his father, which his father gave to him after he stopped working in the coal mines.
Bill:    But anyone could have boots like that.
Henry:    No. These have a quite distinctive pattern on the sides.

There is clearly reason-giving here: Bill asks for reasons to justify belief of the target claim that the body is Al’s body. But what are the reasons? The reason for thinking that the body is Al’s is that the boots are so distinctive that they could only be Al’s. However, the information that the boots previously belonged to Al’s father, who worked as a coal miner, seems irrelevant. If you are confident in this judgment, the relevant parts would simply be: Al wore boots with a distinctive pattern on the sides. This body has boots with that distinctive pattern on the sides. So, this is the body of Al.

Overall, be cautious when thinking about excluding words or propositions from your analysis. You can discard information only when you are confident that the information is not needed in order to support the conclusion or explain the explainee. When reason-giving is complicated, it can be difficult to tell how, or whether, a proposition is involved. In these cases, it is usually a good practice to include all of the sentences in the passage in your analysis, even though it might turn out that they are unneeded.

Notice that we have strayed into the territory of evaluation, rather than analysis. To take the dialogue about identifying Al by his boots, above, as an example, the reason you might throw out the information that the boots belonged to Al’s father is that you are already thinking about how boots might be used to identify a body, and have thus moved from the classification and analysis of reason-giving to its evaluation.

More Straying: Obviously Bad Reasons

It is possible that a set of propositions with no apparent relation between reasons and target should be understood as reason-giving, if flag words or the context demand it. For example, imagine someone says:

Stocks are up this morning. And so, the Yankees will beat the Red Sox in this afternoon’s game.

The flag word “so” indicates a target and that the speaker is reason-giving and that he thinks there is some connection between the first proposition (“Stocks are up this morning.”) and the second (“The Yankees will beat the Red Sox in this afternoon’s game.”), though the mind struggles to understand how “Stocks are up this morning.” in any way justifies or explains the proposition “The Yankees will beat the Red Sox in this afternoon’s game.”. It is possible that the speaker does not understand how to use the word “so”. It is also possible, on the other hand, that the speaker sees some connection between the two that the audience does not, and so you stand to learn something from the speaker. You might thus err on the side of caution and take the speaker as being sincere when he uses “so” and treat what he says as reason-giving.

Reasoning Substitutes


The two uses of reasons are to (1) justify a belief and (2) causally explain a phenomenon. Reasons-for-believing are offered by a speaker when the listener expresses either doubt or ignorance regarding the truth of some belief or advisability of course of action. A causal explanation is offered by a speaker in response to an expression of curiosity about how or why some phenomenon came to be. The purpose of justifying one’s belief to another person (a.k.a. arguing) is to convince the audience to accept the belief and bring the speaker and audience into agreement. The purpose of explaining is to provide the causes of a target phenomenon and so expand the understanding of the audience so that both speaker and audience share the same understanding.

Here we examine the ways in which people thwart these purposes and avoid the task of providing reasons. (For simplicity, we will work with dialogues, that is, written or spoken exchanges between two or more speakers.)

People are sometimes unwilling to justify their own beliefs. Similarly, people are sometimes unwilling to explain an event or phenomenon. This unwillingness can turn into an attempt to sabotage or completely shut down the reason-giving process. At the very beginning of a dialogue, the speaker might refuse to provide reasons when asked to do so by a skeptical audience. Or, the speaker might just say anything, in order to sound like she is giving reasons but without any concern for the quality of those reasons. Or, at any point in a conversation, the audience might refuse to listen to reasons being offered by the speaker, stubbornly clinging to her own position. These strategies can collectively be called reason substitutes.

Why do people use these reason substitutes? In general, the cause is that people are concerned to protect their egos and to maintain (and improve) their status relative to others.

It sounds odd to say it, but people don’t normally initiate arguments or ask for explanations in order to change their minds or increase their understanding. We argue when people disagree with us, and when we argue, our goal is typically to WIN the argument, which means successfully defending our viewpoint (and refuting the other person’s). The person whose belief is left standing is right (and good and righteous!), and the other person is wrong (and a knave, sowing disinformation among the community, and not to be trusted!). Similarly, we generally like to be the person doing the explaining rather than the person asking for the explanation. The person who can provide an explanation appears knowledgeable and wise, while the person who cannot appears ignorant and useless.

The task of revising one’s beliefs is unpalatable to many people. The more important a belief is to a person, the more distressing it will be for this person to examine it, and the more tempted she will be to avoid having the discussion in the first place. This also happens even with very trivial beliefs. Each of us wants to be, or at least to seem to be, both a reliable source of information and a competent reason-giver. Often this impulse is so strong that we can find ourselves either refusing to give reasons or pretending to have reasons even when we do not. If a speaker is having trouble producing reasons, she might attempt to shut down the discussion so that she is not exposed. Or, the speaker might say anything that sounds like reasons, so that she hopefully appears to have reasons.

For many people (or indeed, for all of us a lot of the time) trivial beliefs are not a trivial matter because being wrong about anything at all threatens our sense of self, and protecting our self-esteem is more important to us than finding out the truth or agreeing to the proposed belief.

Being challenged to produce reasons is bad enough; people are even more embarrassed when their reasoning is convincingly refuted – being exposed as wrong is worse than being shown to lack reasons. If a speaker is doing a good job of convincing another person to give up or replace a belief he has previously committed to, this (second) person many people find it embarrassing to change his mind in front of others, and might try to shut down the conversation rather than admit that his original position was incorrect. Admitting to error and changing one’s mind are difficult.

Arguing with someone (in a meaningful way) thus requires both a mutual willingness to be wrong and open-mindedness; learning from another person’s explanation likewise requires an admission of ignorance and a willingness to learn. But if the participants are of unequal status or are trying to establish superiority over another person, this might short-circuit agreement-seeking in various ways. For example, if one person disdains another, he might not think it worthwhile to argue or to explain. Or again, if a position is expressed angrily, or with great force in some other way, a listener might then short-circuit the discussion rather than attempt to engage with an unreceptive audience.. Or again, if one person does not want to appear assertive or confrontational, she might not express skepticism, or express her skepticism only in a very mild way, or back away from her skepticism when the first speaker re-asserts his position.

Similarly, we want to please people, or at least remain on speaking-terms (and cooperating terms) with them. If a speaker says that a particular belief or desire is important to her, others might want to either concede or simply refrain from challenging the speaker despite having doubts, strictly to avoid upsetting her or to please her.

Part of the general problem is that it is more complicated for a person to remember the reasons for her beliefs than to (simply) hold on to the belief, so that when the time comes to justify a belief or give an explanation to others, she does not remember the reasons why we hold the belief. And even if she does vaguely remember the reasons, it can be difficult work to produce them in an organized fashion. Giving reasons can be hard work.

And listening to and tracking reasons and their relationship to the target is hard work, too. The strategies that follow are often effective because it is just as difficult for listeners as it is for speakers to keep track of and remember the reasons, never mind evaluate them and their connection to the target, but they want to appear to be following the speaker. If the proponent is talking confidently and talking at length, the listener might worry that perhaps he is the one who is incompetent.


Simple Refusal. Sometimes, speakers will be frank about their unwillingness to offer reasons or an audience will frankly refuse to listen to them.

A speaker will simply express a belief and, when asked for reasons, indicate that, for her, the belief does not require reasons. She might say “That’s just how I feel about it.” or “I don’t have/need a reason for it; it just is.”.

Similarly, the audience might cut off a speaker’s attempt to give reasons by saying “Don’t even talk to me.” or  “Nothing you can say will shake my confidence.”.

Refusal to engage in either giving reasons or listening to reasons can occur anywhere in the course of an argument, not just at the beginning, where skepticism has been expressed and reasons requested. If a speaker is being asked repeatedly for reasons (because the first reasons she offered were unsatisfactory), then she might leave the conversation, saying something like “I’m done trying to convince you.” or even “It’s too bad you aren’t really listening.”. Likewise, if a person’s belief is being subjected to criticism, she might simply stop listening, saying something like “You can say what you like, but it won’t change my mind.”. Constant, unwavering conviction is thought by some people to be a valuable trait. It is better, in fact, to proportion the strength of one’s convictions to the strength of the evidence.

Taboo. (It’s Wrong To Even Ask For Reasons). One way to refuse to talk about a subject is to claim that it is taboo. A subject is taboo when it is too sensitive to be discussed. This often happens with topics that have a strong emotional charge, such as issues of patriotism, religion, or sexual practices, and those try to discuss these subjects (and especially those who ask for reasons for them) might be cast as traitors or heretics or perverts. Speakers who think the subject is taboo might react with horror or disgust at any expression of doubt, saying something like “How can you not believe that <the target>?” or “We simply don’t talk about that.”. (A taboo is socially grounded whereas refusal is personal.) The goal of the speaker is to shut the skeptic up by making it seem that she is disrupting a social convention and thus threatening her with fear of ostracism from the community. (See the section on using emotions in RW — Emotional Reasons.)

The Reasons Are Obvious. A first version of this strategy is to assert that there is no need to produce the reasons because the claim is obviously true and the skeptic should already hold the belief and have access to the reasons. This attitude is exhibited by use of phrases such as “It’s obvious that …”.

A stronger version of this strategy is to add ridicule, by using abusive phrases which attack the person seeking reasons, such as “Only a fool could fail to know that/why …” Such phrases are often accompanied by assertive body language and a strong tone of voice. Here is an example:

LeBron is the best player in basketball. 2 [Even my six-year-old cousin knows that.]
Even my six-year-old cousin knows that LeBron is the best player in basketball.


LeBron is the best player in basketball.

This strategy is effective in practice. The speaker is saying “There are reasons.” but then declines to give them and suggests that the audience should be able to provide them for himself, or is stupid for not already knowing what the reasons are.

The speaker can also use social pressure by saying something like “Everyone knows …” or “We have always believed …”. Implicit in these phrases are a threat that the audience will be at odds with a belief that is widespread in the community or with one which has been held for a long time, or both.

I Can’t Give The Reasons Right Now. Sometimes a speaker will beg off from giving the reasons, by saying, for example, “There are too many reasons to enumerate …” or “It’s too complicated to explain …” or even simply “Unfortunately, I need to get going.”.

Again, these strategies suggest to the audience that there are reasons but that some practical consideration prevents the speaker from giving them. Again, this strategy is often combined with verbal abuse and social pressure.

Shifting The Burden Of Proof. (You Should Convince Me Otherwise). The related phenomenon of shifting the burden of proof occurs when a person putting forward a proposition insists that the skeptic should provide reason(s) against it, and refuses to offer any reason(s) for the initial proposition.

Jill:    We should go to Ireland for our summer holiday this year.
Jack:    Oh yeah? Why’s that?
Jill:    Well, 2 [why shouldn’t we?]

Perhaps because she cannot produce reasons of her own, Jill claims that it’s Jack’s job to convince her that they should not go to Ireland. In fact, the responsibility lies with her, since she is the one putting forward the new proposition (that they should holiday in Ireland) and there is nothing else in the context that would absolve her from having to give reasons.

Appeal To Ignorance. Another strategy is to argue that it is okay to believe some proposition because there is no proof of its falsity. For example: “No one has yet proven that cigarettes cause lung cancer. So, they do not cause lung cancer.”. In other words, the speaker thinks that an absence of evidence against her believe means that she doesn’t need reasons for her belief.

Typically, this kind of reasoning is fallaciously used in order to support a belief that the speaker is in some way invested in. It thus often involves wishful thinking and leads to a more serious kind of faulty thinking: raising or lowering the standard for good reasons depending on how the belief (or rejection of the belief) will affect the speaker.

Sound Like You’re Giving Reasons

A second general strategy is for the speaker to sound as though she is giving reasons, even as no good reason is offered. The strategies in this section differ from those in the previous section in that the speaker does offer some kind of reason for the target, but the reason is defective in some way.

Imprecisely Point At Reasons. One strategy is to point vaguely at reasons, especially sources, rather than giving the reason itself. Consider the following passage:

1 People cannot help but try to get an advantage over one another. 2 [This comes from our evolutionary background] and 3 [the competition for mates.]

Our evolutionary background is a cause of people having to get an advantage over one another.
The competition for mates is a cause of people having to get an advantage over one another.


People cannot help but try to get an advantage over one another.

One problem you might have with this argument or explanation is that (2) refers loosely to “our evolutionary background”. But this could mean any number of things. It might simply be what is mentioned explicitly in (3) (competition for mates) or to something else. It would be appropriate to wonder what, precisely, is meant.

Pointing to a source is imprecise if the details of where to find the source making the claim are omitted. For example:

1 [Smith says that the although the economy has been recovering, it will enter a second or “double-dip” recession.] (So), 2 that’s how it will be.

It is not clear how we would go about verifying whether the first proposition is true or false, since it is not clear where Smith made this claim and provided her reasons for believing it. It would be better if the speaker gave a precise reference, say to Smith’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, November 10, 2009, page 14.

Even more imprecise would be an appeal to some source, as in phrases such as “experts say” or “everybody knows”. Often the speaker does not, in fact, have any specific source in mind, but rather feels so sure of her belief that she assumes that other people must agree with her.

Irrelevance. Another strategy for appearing to be responding to a request for reasons but not actually doing so is to give “reasons” that are irrelevant to the target. Consider the following example.

Jack:    We should get get another dog.
Jill:       Why?
Jack:     Because if we get a cat it will have to go to the toilet inside the apartment. And cats are often not very social.

Jack has said something in response to the request for reasons, but his reasons are all about why he doesn’t want to get a cat. But the target he’s supposed to be supporting is about why they should get a dog. His reasons are irrelevant.

This strategy is sometimes called red herring. (A red herring is a salted or smoked herring, and using “red herring” as the name of this anti-reasoning strategy might come from a story of dragging a red herring across a trail to distract hounds who were chasing a hare.)

Repeat The Target As A Reason. As a speaker, one strategy for appearing to give reasons without actually giving reasons is to repeat one’s target in slightly different words. Consider the following example:

Henry:    LeBron is the best player in basketball.
Bill:    Oh yeah? Why’s that?
Henry:    [There’s simply no one out there who is as good.]

There’s simply no one out there who is as good.


LeBron is the best player in basketball.

Although Henry has said something in response to a request for reasons, and so appears to co-operating in the reason-giving process, Henry hasn’t really given a reason to support his claim. He has said, in effect:

LeBron is the best player.


LeBron is the best player.

This argument will not be convincing. Henry has not added any reasons for believing the target. Thus, since Bill does not already believe the target (LeBron is the best) the so-called reason won’t help convince him of it.

Speakers sometimes repeat the target as a reason but make it stronger or more outrageous. This is just as futile as repeating the target: if the listener is skeptical about the target, he will be even more skeptical about the reason. Consider the following version of the argument about LeBron:

Henry:    1 LeBron is the best player in basketball.
Bill:    Oh yeah? Why’s that?
Henry:    2 [There’s simply no one out there who comes close.]

Henry has said, in effect:

LeBron is by far the best player.


LeBron is the best player.

Well, yes: if he’s by far the best player, then he is the best player. But if the goal is to convince Bill that LeBron is the best player, saying that he’s by far the best player won’t help. If Henry is going to convince Bill, the reasons Henry offers should be reasons Bill will (be more likely to) accept.

For another example, see the above clip from the end of this clip from the movie Idiocracy.

(Repeating The Target is a very basic version of a fallacy called begging the question or circular reasoning. Begging the question further allows that the target, or some aspect of it, is assumed by the reasons; the target (or something close to it) doesn’t doesn’t have to be explicitly used as a reason.)

Sound Like You Know What You’re Doing

These strategies are often successful because just sounding as though one is giving reasons is often enough to satisfy the audience, even though the reasons are not very good at all.

These strategies works better when accompanied by strong gestures and tone, whether these are to reassure the audience (“I’ll be happy to give you my reasons …”) or to belittle the audience (“Of course I have reasons. They are …”).

There is some evidence that simply using flag words or phrases convinces audiences. In an experiment conducted by Ellen Langer and colleagues, people standing in a queue for a photocopier were approached by someone hoping to join the queue in front of them. The person joining the queue said one of the following three things:

  1. Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?
  2. Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?
  3. Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I am in a rush?

Remarkably, the rates of acceptance were almost the same for B (93%) and C (94%), even though B does not offer a good reason for jumping the queue, since anyone who wants to use a copier wants to make copies. It is thought that word “because” was somehow sufficient to persuade the people already in line — option A worked (only) 60% of the time.

(Notice that option B also fails to add any information. Someone who entertains the proposition “You should let me join the queue for the photocopier ahead of you.” is already entertaining the proposition “I [the speaker] have some copies to make.”. A person would only want to join the queue for photocopying if she had copies to make. The argument thus begs the question.)

Thus, it seems that simply using flag words or phrases might be enough to satisfy an audience. When a speaker begins an argument or explanation with a phrase such as “Let me tell you the reasons …” or “My reasons are these: …”, she makes clear to the audience that the reasons are on the way. But speakers might then go on not to provide a reason, or provide “reasons” that are irrelevant.

Why might the use of flag words and phrases help convince an audience? The emotion being conveyed is that the speaker is responsible and trustworthy. The listener wants to know that he is not wasting his time. If he is willing to listen, he feels better when he can be sure that there are reasons being offered. Indeed, taking the time to ask for reasons and then spending time listening to whatever the speaker says take up the audience’s time and energy. In order to feel feeling that she has wasted her time, the audience might be willing to let the speaker get away without giving reasons or with very poor reasons. In other words, audiences might default to the easier task of making sure that the speaker sounds as though she is offering a reason. A speaker, accordingly, might take advantage of this and simply create the impression of giving reasons, which can be done by using flag words and then a proposition. The longer and more complicated this “reason” is, the more convinced the (typical) audience might be that the speaker really does have a reason. (Politicians are experts at this.) As a critical audience, however, you should try to get over the fear that you will sound stupid if you ask and re-ask for reasons.

Problems with Meaning


The process of analysis requires that the reasons and the target are each a freestanding proposition, written in full and made as definite as possible. Before evaluation, you must make sure that the propositions have a clear meaning. That is, the meaning of the propositions must be clear to you, the person doing the analyzing and evaluating. Different propositions are clear to different people. For example, a piece of technical jargon might be clear to an expert in that subject but might not be clear to a beginner. Thus, the basic question to ask about every proposition you read is, “Do I know what this means?”

The meaning of a descriptive proposition (one which describes how the world is such as “The sky is blue.”) is clear if you know what it would take for the proposition to be true or false; the meaning of a practical proposition (one which proposes what someone should do such as “I should wear the blue sweater.”) is clear if you know what it would take for the proposition to be choiceworthy or not.

Knowing what a proposition means is not the same as knowing whether it is true or false. You might not know whether it is true or false that “It is raining in Baltimore right now.” or that “Khartoum is the capital of Sudan.” but even so, you know what those propositions mean, that is, you know what would make each of them believable.

The first difficulty in knowing the meaning of a proposition is not recognizing a word it contains at all. Or, even if you recognize a word and have some associations with it, you might still not know what it means, that is, what its definition is. For example, you might know that “tendonitis” is a medical word, but you don’t know what it means.

When you do the exercises, read each word of each passage and if you do not recognize a word, don’t simply ignore it. Instead, try to work out its meaning from the context or, better, look it up in a dictionary.

There can still be a variety of problems with meaning, which, speaking generally, all stem from the fact that language is sometimes imprecise (or: vague). There are a variety of different types of imprecise language; the rest of this surveys some specific categories.

There may be language that doesn’t fit neatly into any of the categories described in the next section. When you do the exercises, make a note of any words whose meaning is unknown or imprecise and explain in what way they are imprecise, using the categories described below as much as possible.

Metaphor and Simile

In an effort to be entertaining at the same time as being informative, humans often use colorful language when speaking. Unfortunately, as far knowing the meaning of the proposition is concerned, the color is a distraction.

Here is an example:

Henry makes a prediction: Jack won’t let let Jim off the leash to chase squirrels because Jack has a heart of stone.

The passage is initially analyzed as follows:

Henry makes a prediction: 1 Jack won’t let Jim off the leash to chase squirrels (because) 2 [Jack has a heart of stone.]

When we put the passage in standard form, we want each of the propositions to be freestanding and to have a clear meaning. In this passage, the meaning of proposition 1 is clear but proposition (2) is not, because Jack cannot literally have a heart of stone and the speaker does not intend to say that he does. Rather, the speaker is saying something about Jack in a metaphorical (and dramatic) way.

We need to rewrite the reason with a plausible translation. While it is easy to spot metaphors and similes, it can be difficult to say exactly what they mean in non-metaphorical terms. Perhaps in this case, the reason is “Jack is mean-spirited.”. Our full analysis is as follows:

Henry makes a prediction: 1 Jack won’t let Jim off the leash to chase squirrels (because) 2 [Jack has a heart of stone.]

Jack is mean-spirited.


Jack will not let Jim off the leash to chase squirrels.

Here are two more examples:

The new iPhone is flying off the shelves. Visit your local Apple store today!
Life is like a box of chocolates. There’s no reason to give up because of one setback.

As before, mobile devices do not literally fly off shelves and life is in many ways not like a box of chocolates. Plausible translations for the reason in each case might be “The new iPhone is selling well.”, and “A variety of events happen in the course of life.”.

A definite meaning can often be given to metaphors and similes, but this is additional work for the audience. Metaphors and similes perhaps stimulate the brain more than plain language, and they might do so in ways that help an argument be convincing, but they can also make the propositions they appear in difficult to understand.

Euphemism and Dysphemism (Language Used as a  Shield and Weapon)

Some words have positive or negative connotations separate from the literal meaning (if there is any!) of the words.

Euphemisms make something sound better than it really is, such as using “laid off” instead of “fired”. Dysphemisms make something sound worse than it is, such as describing an unreliable car as a “death trap”. We will expand the meaning of these terms to mean words that emphasize the emotional aspect rather than the descriptive. As such, euphemism and dysphemism will also include jargon and buzzwords.

Here are some words/phrases which will stir up positive feelings in most people but which obscure the literal meaning:

family values; moving forward; much-needed change; fulfilling the promise of a generation; working [as in “working Canadians”]; green initiative; unbeatable prices; fuel-injection technician; commodity relocation; freedom fighter; vertically challenged; full-figured; passed on; between jobs; pre-owned; sales associate; executive assistance; downsizing; enhanced interrogation; transfer tubes; creation science; climate change

A “fuel-injection technician” is in fact someone who pumps petrol/gasoline at a filling station, but the words “fuel-injection” and “technician” are both intended to make the audience think that the job is quite sophisticated and perhaps even glamorous!

Here is an example of a phrase used euphemistically:

Lundberg Family has been farming rice in environmentally friendly ways for three generations. Ask for our rice at your local supermarket.

The phrase “environmentally friendly ways” sounds good, but it is not clear what it means, and this is not a problem we can resolve by using a dictionary, since there are a number of different things it might mean. If the company provides more information (perhaps on its web site), we can clarify and rewrite the proposition when writing the inference in standard form, but, if not, the standard form repeats the sentences from the passage and we make a note that there is a problem:

1 [Lundberg Family has been farming rice in environmentally friendly ways for three generations.] 2 Ask for our rice at your local supermarket.

Lundberg Family has been farming rice in environmentally friendly ways for three generations.


You should buy Lundberg Family rice.

In 2, “environment”, friendly”, and “environmentally friendly ways” are euphemistic; it sounds good but I have no idea in what way their farming methods are friendly towards the environment.

Dysphemisms are used to make things seem worse than they actually are. Consider the following examples:

tree-hugger; snail-mail; death tax; anti-life; grammar Nazi

Scientific jargon can be used to give the impression of authority or sophistication. For example, food fashion changes every few years; recently, antioxidants and Omega-3 have been all the rage. Consumers are encouraged to make purchases based on these features, though it’s not likely many consumers know exactly what claims such as “This product contains antioxidants.” and “Antioxidants are beneficial to health.” mean. Speakers hope that audiences will put aside the fact that they don’t understand the terminology and be impressed by the jargon because it is science-y.

“Antioxidant” is also a buzzword, a word that has “buzz” (that is, lots of people have heard of it). In this case, the buzz is positive: people think antioxidants are good. But few people know what it means; most people will know that it has something to do with food and that it’s a good thing.

Advertisements are full of euphemisms, especially buzzwords. This is because the job of a modern advertisement is no longer to inform the audience about the features of the product but instead to get the audience to feel a certain emotion (typically a positive emotion) and associate it with the product.

Take a look at the packaging of the snack-food below:

Every word on the packaging for these crisps/chips is euphemistic: “gluten free”, “good natured”, “selects”, “baked”, “vegetable”, and even “crisps”. “Gluten free” is a buzzword not understood by many people, whereas “baked” has an ordinary meaning but, like “gluten free”, is also meant to connote greater healthiness (as compared to other cooking methods, such as frying). The company (and by extension, the product) is called “good natured” which literally means “kind” and “friendly” but it makes no literal sense for chips to be called “good natured” (and it is hard to know what it means for a company to be good natured). In any case, the point is rather that the company and its products are “good” and “natural”. “Selects” is meant to give an impressive of quality due to selectiveness. “Vegetable” is perhaps the most plainly descriptive word on the packaging, though it too might suggest health.  “Crisps” is significant because the usual word for this type of product in the USA is “chips”; because it is unusual, “crisps” suggests that the product is crisp and fresh.

Like metaphors and similes, euphemisms and dysphemisms are often not vacuous, if a meaning can be given to them, but they add an extra step to the process. When confronted by a passage with a proposition which includes a euphemism or a dysphemism, the proposition must be re-written or a note made pointing out the problem.

Comparatives without Comparisons

Comparatives (such as “taller“, “cheaper“, and so on) are meaningless if not made explicit. Consider the following:

NEW IMPUNITY CIGARS — smoother by far!

In this example, we do not know what the cigars are smoother than. (We would also want a more precise understanding of “by far” which is a fuzzy term – see subsections 5 and 6, below). In this case, it is not possible to clarify the meaning and so, we include pointing out the problem:

1 NEW IMPUNITY CIGARS — 2 [smoother by far!]

Impunity cigars are smoother by far.


You should try Impunity cigars.

In 2, there is nothing to compare the smoothness of the cigars to.

To provide a comparison, advertisers will often say that a product is better than “a leading brand” or “many other brands”, but notice: these comparisons themselves need to be made explicit: Which is the leading brand? What other brands is the product being compared to?


An imprecise word (or phrase) can be used to weaken (or ‘weasel out of’) a definite or striking claim. The speaker’s hope is that the audience will not pay attention to the weasel words — their imprecision means that their meaning is not immediately obvious — and will instead focus only on the rest. For example:


“Helps” is used here as a weasel word. The speaker is hoping that the audience simply connects the product with “losing weight”, perhaps because it is difficult to give a definite meaning to the word “helps”. Here is another example:


“Up to” is a weasel phrase. The advertiser is hoping that the audience thinks only of “lose” and “10 pounds a week”. Plus, “up to” could be anywhere between 0 and 10. Since no precise meaning is given, the brain might instead fix on “10”, which is precise (and so easier for the brain to deal with) and optimistic.

When we analyze, we make a note pointing out the problem:


A person can lose up to 10 pounds a week by using Weight-Away.


You should use Weight-Away.

In 1, “up to” is a weasel phrase: it is used to weaken “10 pounds” (and it is also imprecise).

A common form of weaseling in advertising is to present a striking claim prominently, and then qualify it in the “fine print” which is, literally, difficult to read. For example:


(*In conjunction with a moderate diet and regular exercise.)

As the saying goes: the large print giveth; the small print taketh away. (This specific example might also be interpreted as exploiting an ambiguity in the word “with”.)

Fuzzy Terms

A word is fuzzy if is understood in terms of something which varies in quantity and no precise quantity is used in the definition.

The word “bald”, for example, is fuzzy because knowing whether or not something is bald depends on the number of hairs it has (per square centimeter or other unit of area). It clearly applies to a person who has no hair, and it clearly does not apply to a person who has a full head of hair. But for some people, whether or not it applies is unclear. In short, there are borderline cases and a precise number of hairs would be needed in order to distinguish bald from not-bald.

Fuzzy words involve quantities and lack a precise specification of when the word applies and when it doesn’t. For example, “light” and “dark” are fuzzy because they are understood in terms of how much light there is. The same is true of “tall” and “short” when these are understood in terms of centimeters or inches.

Many words for quantities are fuzzy, such as “lots”, “by far”, and many others. When does lots of something become ‘not lots’? If you can’t tell when a word switches from applying to not applying, it is fuzzy.

In order to deal with a proposition which contains a fuzzy term, we need to make the term precise. In the case of “bald” (in propositions such as “Jones is bald.”), we might say just how many hairs Jones question has, or, more realistically, give at least a more precise statement of the degree of baldness, such as “Jones is totally bald.” or “Jones is bald on top, but has hair on the sides.” or “Jones is as bald as Winston Churchill was.”.

To return to the example above about Impunity cigars, we would add a note pointing out the fuzzy term “by far” in addition to the fact that there is nothing to compare their smoothness to:

1 NEW IMPUNITY CIGARS — 2 [smoother by far!]

Impunity cigars are smoother by far.


You should try Impunity cigars.

In 2, there is nothing to compare the smoothness of the cigars to.

In 2, “by far” is fuzzy – I don’t know when one thing is ‘far’ smoother than another.

(Although it is not the focus of the ad, the word “smooth” itself is a fuzzy term: at what degree of roughness does something go from being smooth to not-smooth?)

The continuum fallacy (or sorites paradox) exploits fuzzy terms. It is a form of inference which takes advantage of the fact that fuzzy terms do not have clear dividing lines at any point between the extremes but vary only by degree, in order to argue, fallaciously, that two quite different states share some property. Such arguments have the following general form:

There is a continuum c.
Some thing on one end of c has property p.
Moving one increment along c cannot result in a change from p to not p.


Some thing on the other end of c has p.

The mere fact that there is no sharp line between things having property-p and things not having p is supposed to give us good reason for thinking that there is no difference in terms of p between things on one end of continuum-c and things on the other end — so that since the things on one end of the spectrum have p, so do the things on the other.

Here is an example:

A person having exactly 1 penny is not significantly different in wealth from a person having exactly 2 pennies, and a person having exactly 2 pennies is not significantly different in wealth from a person having exactly 3 pennies, . . ., and a person having exactly 99,999,999,999 pennies is not significantly different in wealth from a person having exactly 100,000,000,000 pennies. Thus, since a person having exactly 1 penny is not rich, a person having exactly 100,000,000,000 pennies is not rich.

In this passage, the fuzzy term is “wealth” because it depends on a continuum (“c”) of the number of pennies owned, while the property (“p”) in question is “not rich”. So, in standard form, the inference would be:

There is a continuum of pennies owned, from one upward.
A person with one penny is not rich.
Moving one increment (one penny) along the continuum of pennies owned cannot result in a change from ‘not rich’ to ‘rich’.


A person with 1,000,000 pennies is not rich.

There is good reason for thinking the reasons are true, but there is no good reason for thinking the conclusion is true. In fact, there is good reason for thinking the conclusion is false. The reasoning, thus, must be bad.


A word is ambiguous when it has multiple precise meanings. The word “pen” is ambiguous: it can be used to refer to a tool for writing, it can be used to refer to an enclosure for animals, and it can be used to refer to a penitentiary. The same goes for “has” in the sentence “Hannibal often has people for dinner.”. It can be used to say that Hannibal often has people over to his place for dinner, and it can be used to say that Hannibal often eats people for dinner.

In general terms, a word, phrase, or sentence is ambiguous whenever it has multiple meanings. In order to evaluate a sentence containing an ambiguous word, we must first resolve the ambiguity.

Ambiguities can arise syntactically (that is, because of the way in which the words/phrases are placed next to one another).

A classic example is “Wanted: A piano by a local woman with wooden legs.”. Does the woman have wooden legs? Or the piano?

Here are some others: “Man’s arm severed, 3 others critically injured in crash near Midway.” (Chicago Sun Times, July 19, 2009)

“The student described how the relationship escalated from Facebook flirtations to sexual intercourse during a courtroom appearance.” (Huffington Post, July 16th, 2009).

Equivocation. When an ambiguous word is used with more than one of its meanings in different propositions in the same inference, the inference is said to equivocate. Equivocation violates the rule that a word or phrase should have the same meaning every time it is used in an inference or explanation. Consider the following argument from the abortion debate:

1 [A fetus is a human being.] 2 [A human being has a right to life.] (So,) 3 a fetus has a right to life.

This argument equivocates, since the phrase “human being” has different meanings in (1) and in (2). In (1) it means a biological human being whereas in (2) it means a person. If we apply either meaning consistently throughout the argument, one of the premises will be false.

Let’s consider each meaning, one at a time. If we take “human being” to mean “biologically human” and replace each occurrence of “human” with it, we get the following inference:

A fetus is a biological human.
A biological human has a right to life.


A fetus has a right to life.

If we take “human being” to mean “person”, we get the following inference:

A fetus is a person.
A person has a right to life.


A fetus has a right to life.

The second premise in the first argument – “A person has a right to life.” – will be thought false by many, and so will the first premise in the second argument – “A fetus is a person.”.

In general terms, an inference equivocates when a single word, phrase, or proposition disguises different meanings. “Equivocation” literally means “say to be the same”, when in fact the same word is being used with a different meaning on each occasion. The word should be replaced in the standard form with the different meanings in order to show the equivocation:

1 [A fetus is a human being.] 2 [A human being has a right to life.] (So,) 3 a fetus has a right to life.

A fetus is a biological human.
A person has a right to life.


A fetus has a right to life.

The term “human being” is used ambiguously; it means different things in proposition (1) and proposition (2).

From An Introduction to Reasoning, by Cathal Woods (2007)