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 provocative. 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.