The purpose of this short essay is to discuss the relevance and importance of three-part arguments in structured essays. Three types of this structure are analyzed; for the sake of this discussion we will call them the dialectic, analytic, and synthetic structures. The choice of structure relates to the type and purpose of a given argument.
Clinging to a three-part structure seems like fetishization to some, similar to the reverence paid to other integers in numerology. We encounter binary constructions throughout philosophy, religion, and poetry, such as in the oppositions of dark and light, good and evil, yin and yang, and male and female. Five-part divisions are common to traditional story telling—beginning, rising action, climax, falling action, and deneoument—but pentagons and pentagrams relate also to the golden mean and the Fibonacci sequence. Be it the days of the week or the Book of Revelations, seven, too, is found throughout tradition and in cultural artifacts. What makes three so special?
Tripartite argument structures can be supported by rhetorical, cognitive, and aesthetic reasons. The three parts lend themselves to a more balanced and harmonious structure than do just two, which can overemphasize one of the arguments or points. As this is relevant to essays and arguments in shorter works, one must not forget the role of the reader’s memory and attention span; in particular, it is wise not to overburden the reader with too many arguments, themes, and bodies of evidence. Finally, in the context of an essay supporting a particular thesis or group of theses, we hope to show that in most cases a three-part structure is both necessary and sufficient.
The Three Styles
From high school at the very latest most writers of academic papers are familiar with the “TS123C” paragraph and essay structure. A topic sentence or paragraph (TS) provides a thesis, which is then supported by three concrete example or pieces of analysis (123), and the paragraph or essay is tied together with a concluding or summarizing element (C). We shall label this the analytic argument, for a thesis or topic is provided and is then broken down into smaller parts. This form fits instructional as well as narrative arguments, for in both cases we map the beginning to the first piece of evidence, the middle to the second, and the end to the third.
Whereas the goal of the analytic argument is to break a topic down into smaller parts so as provide evidence for a position or even to illuminate or illustrate a complex idea, the synthetic argument works to combine the abstract and the more concrete either to come to a better understanding of a given topic or in order to transition from one topic to another. There are two sub-varieties of this structure, which we shall label abstract-concrete-abstract, and concrete-abstract-concrete, and which we shall visualize by way the hourglass and the diamond respectively. In the former we begin with a general topic and narrow toward a specific case or example; after analysis of the specific case or example we then return to a broader discussion. In the latter a specific point—be it an anecdote, law, rule, or thesis—broadens into a general discussion or reflection; it is concluded by returning to a focused position, one that can but need not be closely related to the point of departure.
Both the analytic and the synthetic forms of building an argument can be seen as linear: starting from a point, traveling through examples or reflection, and reaching an end that follows naturally from that which came before; when the destination matches the starting point the result is circular. This similarity between the two comes from their focus on a particular thesis; the dialectic structure, in contrast, which has a strong and a weak form, relies on the tension between a thesis and its antithesis. The weak dialectic structure is embodied in the consideration of pros and cons, resulting in a compromise; the act of comparing, contrasting, and coming to a final evaluation is similar. The end result takes some elements from the thesis and some from its opposite, the antithesis, and is metaphorically the sum of its parts. The strong dialectic argument takes a thesis and antithesis, eventually rejects both, and from them constructs a synthesis that transcends its origins (is greater than sum of its parts) and acts as a new thesis for a further dialectical argument.
A writer cannot consider form and content separately. Analytic structures, by means of breaking down the complex or compact into bite-size pieces, lend themselves to explanations, to giving instructions, and to single-mindedly demonstrating or proving a point. Synthetic structures are more suited to reflection or exploration. In contrast to these two, dialectical arguments are essential both for even-handed arguments as well as critical works. When choosing one of the argument structures presented here, it is imperative to pick one that matches the purpose of your essay.
Although it is clear that this taxonomy of tripartite arguments has its uses, it is not at first evident that for most arguments one of these three is either necessary or sufficient. A three-part structure follows naturally for dialectical arguments; a thesis has an antithesis that tears down the original thesis, yet such an act is unconvincing unless the antithesis itself is evaluated, and no actual argument is made and no conclusion is reached until the thesis and antithesis are either harmonized (compromise) or transcended (synthesis). The two synthetic structures are likewise incomplete with out a third section that returns the reader to the same level of thinking as where he or she began, be it concrete or abstract; simply to start with a concrete statement and reflect on it in broad terms or two take a broad topic and explore it by way of an example is not an argument, for the results of the exploration or reflection are missing. The question of the analytic model is more difficult, however, and its tripartite structure can be deduced neither from its reliance on a thesis and antithesis requiring a synthesis nor from its need to return to its starting point. Instead we must consider that when looking for evidence, if there is only one element, it is trivial and thus unworthy of exploration—for it is merely a restatement of the original thesis—, so we need at least two, but as we see in such a statement as “you are either with us or you are against us,” the binary division is faulty. The logical opposition is “you are with us, or you are not with us,” which still leaves room for “against us.” Furthermore, if there are more than three points, we can often consolidate at least two of them or even leave them out, for we do not wish to overburden the reader with too much information or too complex an argument, and we only need enough evidence to support our case convincingly—only rarely must we cover all possible cases. We see examples of such tactics in this essay insofar as weak and strong dialectical arguments, as well as the two synthetic arguments, fit into a “super-category.” This essay focused on tripartite arguments to the exclusion of other constructions, a move that would not withstand scrutiny if its purpose were to examine all argument structures; thus the choice of evidence can necessitate an alteration in the thesis or topic of the essay under consideration.
What newspaper articles and grant proposals have in common is that they must present as much relevant information in as compact a form as possible at the beginning of the document. Newspaper readers are short on time and grant proposal readers, by virtue of the many proposals on their desks, are short on patience; if you do not catch and hold their attention, you have lost them. While readers of novels and readers of technical literature approach texts with different purposes in mind (one is in for the long-haul and there for entertainment, and the other might pick and choose what he or she reads in the search for information), texts for both can be wordier and more comprehensive than the essay form under consideration here. Furthermore, while document types other than the essay might employ formal structures different from those explored here, a single essay might contain more than one of the tripartite argument forms discussed in this essay. As the reader will note, this particular essay enacted all three base types: the introduction was dialectical, the second section was analytic in nature, the first paragraph of the third section was synthetic while at the same time showing analytic characteristics, and the essay as a whole is synthetic in nature. The use of these three models need not be stale or static, and while other methods of organizing arguments for essays and other texts must not be ignored, mastering the dialectic, analytic, and synthetic structures improves the writing of both novice and experienced writers alike.