Tips on Writing about Assumptions

Tips on Writing about Assumptions
Your task in analyzing the reasoning is to identify 2-3 key assumptions in the article you are analyzing.
(For essays comparing two articles plan to identify 1-2 assumptions per article.) State what the
assumptions are in your own words, explain what they have to do with the author’s argument, and say
why you either agree or disagree. (You might also say you disagree but you can see how it’s a reasonable
assumption to make.)
This usually works best if you have one paragraph per assumption.
The examples in this handout are taken from the article “Spend the Bailout Money on the Middle Class,”
by Howard Zinn, published in the Nation magazine October 27, 2008. However, the basic ideas apply to
any persuasive piece of writing.
Things to watch out for
Be very clear about exactly what the author is claiming. (Avoid direct quotes, and make sure you
phrase the claim accurately.)
Remember the definition of an assumption: A claim the author makes or implies but does not
even try to prove.
o Therefore, do not write something like this: “I disagree with this claim because the
author does not back it up with facts/evidence/support.” Instead, say what you know or
believe about the subject that makes you think the author is wrong.
o Don’t do the opposite either: “I agree because the author backs it up with
evidence/facts/support.” This means it’s not an assumption, so you need to find a
different claim to analyze—a claim that the author does not support.
o And don’t do this: “I disagree because the author’s evidence is weak.” Even if the
evidence is weak, there is still evidence, meaning that the author tried to prove the
claim. An assumption is a claim the author does not even try to prove. So even if they try
and fail, it is still not an assumption. Find a different claim to analyze, one the author
does not even try to prove.
Be sure to give reasons. Don’t just re-state the claim.
o Don’t do this: “The author believes that spending the money on the middle class would
be more beneficial than giving it to the wealthy. I agree because if we give it to ordinary
people it will help more than if we give it to big business.” The second sentence merely
re-states the first, rather than giving a reason. Instead, say what you know or believe
about the subject, independent of what the author has written, that makes you agree.
Ignorance is not the same as disagreement.
o Example: “I disagree because we cannot know whether helping people with their
mortgages would be better for the economy.” This does not give a reason for
disagreement. Rather, it gives a reason to have no opinion. Again, your job is to take
what you know, or what you believe, or what common sense says must be true, and use
that to form an opinion.
Watch out for some vs. all
o “The author says the government never spends any money on lower class people.”
Statements like this are usually mistaken.
o Better: “The author says the government rarely spends money on the lower classes.”
The importance of qualifiers
This last example brings out a more general point about arguments that may seem paradoxical
(contradictory): Sometimes, the weaker claim is the stronger claim.
I phrased this in a contradictory way to get your attention, but really I’m cheating because I’m using two
different meanings of “strong” and “weak.” Here’s what I mean:
1. Saying the government rarely spends money on the lower classes is “weaker” than saying it
never does. Saying never is a much “stronger” claim, if by “strong” we mean bold, powerful or
2. However, it’s much harder to prove that the government never spends money on the lower
classes. In this sense, that claim is “weaker” than saying it rarely does. To turn this around, it is
very easy to disprove the “never” claim—one counter-example is enough. It’s much harder to
disprove the “rarely” claim, because you have to give lots of examples rather than just one.
3. Therefore, the “weaker” claim (the less bold or challenging claim) is the “stronger” claim (easier
to defend, harder to disprove).
This illustrates the importance of what are called “qualifiers.” These are terms that change your
statements from absolutes into partial statements, or certainties into possibilities. For example:
“Some,” “most,” “many,” etc. vs. “all”
“Few,” “not many,” “less,” etc. vs. “none”
“Probably,” “may,” “could,” “is likely,” etc. vs. “is” or “will”
“Often,” “usually,” “sometimes,” etc., vs. “always”
“Rarely,” “hardly ever,” “infrequently,” etc. vs. “never”
Some students believe that such qualifiers make their claims less convincing. Often, however, they
actually make the claim more convincing because they leave room for exceptions. They state a general
pattern without claiming the pattern is universal.
To use a structural analogy: Sometimes the structure that can bend is stronger than the one that can’t.
Finding your own assumptions
Finding your own assumptions means thinking about why you agree or disagree with the author. That
agreement or disagreement is based on your ideas about the world (knowledge, guesses, assumptions
including your values). Look at your reasons and you will find assumptions.