Argument vs. Explanation Study Guide (page 2)

based on 4 ratings
Updated on Sep 20, 2011


I did well on my SATs because I got a high score.

The explanadum and the explanans simply repeat each other. Doing well on a test and getting a high score are different ways of saying the same thing. In order to make this an effective explanation, the speaker would have to give new information. We already know she did well on the test, but why? She might say:

I did well on my SATs because I studied and got enough rest before the test.

This explanation works because the explanans tell something new. It also fulfills the other three qualities of a good explanation: It is about something that is not disputed (the speaker did well on the SATs), it solves the problem of not knowing why the person did well, and it's relevant (the reasons make sense). If the speaker had said, "I did well on my SATs because I have a dog that won't walk on a leash," we would say the explanation was irrelevant. Having a dog has nothing to do with doing well on a standardized test.

Distinguishing an Explanation from an Argument

You know that a good explanation gives new, relevant information about an accepted fact that is problematic or puzzling. So it's usually easy to spot an explanation that doesn't work on one or more of these points. But it can be tricky when an argument masquerades as an explanation, or an explanation looks like an argument.

An explanation answers the question, "why?" and helps you understand something by telling what caused it. An argument, on the other hand, tries to convince you of the truth of a conclusion by giving reasons (premises) that are evidence for the conclusion. Simply put, an explanation provides causes, and an argument provides evidence. Even when you understand this basic difference, it can sometimes be difficult to tell one from the other. Why is it important to know the difference? Someone might label his or her explanation as an argument, trying to convince you of something by telling you its causes, as opposed to giving you evidence. So knowing three specific ways in which explanations and arguments differ is important.


An argument can't be just one statement, but you can give a concise explanation in one sentence. "Why did you choose this college?" "It has a well-respected education department, and I plan to be a teacher."

Recommendations and Value Judgments

Many arguments express a recommendation, or value judgment, and try to convince you of the goodness or rightness of it. Explanations do not contain such recommendations or judgments. They are about undisputed facts and not attempts at persuasion. For example, here is a conclusion to an argument:

The best place for a steak is Louie's Steak Shack. They use only high quality meat, and the décor is fabulous.

How do we know this isn't an explanation? It is the speaker's judgment and recommendation, an opinion rather than a fact. The statement could become an explanation if there were facts that the restaurant was "the best place for a steak." For example, state another person's opinion: "Eat-Out magazine says the best place for a steak is Louie's Steak Shack because it has only high quality meat, and the décor is fabulous."

Now we have a simple statement of fact, what the magazine says, followed by its causes, why the magazine has that opinion—the quality of the meat and the décor. Always remember that explanations are about an already-accepted fact. Judgments and recommendations aren't facts.

View Full Article
Add your own comment