Number. 36 © CDTL 2003
Writing the Argumentative Essay: Language and Style
Assistant Professor Kenneth Paul A.S-S. Tan
University Scholars Programme / Department of Political Science

The following checklist is targeted at undergraduate students who find that they are able to construct in their minds strong and sophisticated arguments that bring together compelling and original ideas, but are unable in their writing to express these arguments and ideas clearly, accurately and effectively. The force of their arguments is thus severely diminished and they end up with poor grades that do not reflect the quality of their thinking. This is not to say that ‘writing’ itself should be thought of simply as a neutral medium to convey already complete arguments and ideas—the writing process fundamentally constitutes the formation of our thoughts. For practical purposes, though, it may be wise to try to isolate ‘problem areas’ in order to deal with them more systematically. Improvement will take time, but it can be speeded up with self-conscious practice and experimentation. Here are some of the areas to look out for when writing and editing typical argumentative essays:

Standard English
  • No grammatical errors (e.g. incomplete or awkwardly structured sentences, dangling modifiers, problems with subject-verb agreement, punctuation mistakes)
  • No misused words -> Always check the dictionary
  • No jargon or slang (meaningful only to a very specialised or local audience), unless:
    • You explain what they mean
    • You have good analytical or dramatic reasons for using them
  • No typographical errors, e.g.: - Cut-and-Paste’ mistakes
    • Spelling mistakes -> Use the spelling checker on your word-processor
  • Effective choice of words -> Avoid ambiguity: Be specific and exact
  • Effective placement of words in sentences to eliminate ambiguity
  • Sentences are not cluttered with repetitive words, redundancies and inflated phrases
    • Avoid clumsy sentences that confuse and irritate readers
  • Systematic paragraphs convey ideas clearly, logically and purposefully
  • Consistent use of verb tenses
  • Consistent use of first-person, second-person and third-person pronouns to maintain the point of view appropriate to the contexts
  • Consistent use of spelling, grammar and style conventions (e.g. British/American/Australian English, single/double quotations marks)
  • Sufficiently formal as appropriate to an academic essay
  • No clichés and colloquialisms, unless you have good analytical or dramatic reasons for using them
Personal Style/Voice
  • No mimicking of lofty and pretentious styles or use of ‘big’ and excessive words in the vain attempt to impress readers
  • A consistent style that you are comfortable with, because it reflects your own individual voice
  • A variety of sentence structures used to avoid monotony
  • The writing is not dull and lifeless, but elegant, clever, witty, energetic, etc.
  • No sexist, stereotypical, or offensive language
Sense of Audience
  • Your interest in the topic is conveyed to your readers
    • You must convince readers that they should also be interested in what you have to say
    • It always helps to imagine yourself as the reader
  • Actively engages the reader, e.g.:
    • Well-paced writing: Short sentences to emphasise a point, long and complex sentences to slow down readers, etc.
    • Suitably dramatic moments: Delaying information to make conclusions more satisfying, etc.
Formal Requirements
  • Falls within the prescribed word limit
  • Complies with the prescribed format (e.g. fonts, margins, line spacing, justification, section headings)
  • Consistent adherence to the prescribed style of documentation (e.g. APA, Harvard, MLA)


Further Reading

Hacker, D. (1999). A Writer’s Reference (4th ed.). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Tan, Paul A.S-S. (2003). ‘Constructing the Argumentative Essay’. Successful Learning, Issue No. 29. Singapore: Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning, National University of Singapore.

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