(To) Argue, Argument, Argumentation, Argumentative: The Words

1. The English words

1.1 To Argue ­

The verb to argue has two different accepted meanings which will be referred to, respectively, as to argue1 and to argue2:

— To argue1: “to put forth reasons for or against; debate”
— To argue2: “to engage in a quarrel; dispute: We need to stop arguing and engage in constructive dialogue (tfd, Argue).

The morphological, syntactic, and semantic differences between these meanings are crucial and clear.


The word argumentation derives from to argue1 via argument1; it refers only to a speech in which a conclusion is supported by good reasons.


— To argue_1 is followed by a that clause: “A argues that P”; P is the claim.
— To argue_2 is followed by a double indirect complementation, “A argues with B about Q”. Q is neither A‘s nor B‘s claim, but refers to the issue of the dispute.


— To argue_1 means “to give reasons” (MW, Argue), and refers to a semiotic activity (verbal and co-verbal).

— To argue_2 means “to have a disagreement a quarrel, a dispute” (ibid.), and refers to the broad field of interactions ranging from a lively discussion to outright pugilism, as shown in the following passage, in which the detective Ned Beaumont questions an informant, Sloss:

Ned Beaumont nodded. ‘Just what did you see?
We saw Paul and the kid standing there under the trees arguing
You could see that as you rode past?
Sloss nodded vigorously again.
It was a dark spot’, Ned Beaumont reminded him. ‘I don’t see how you could’ve made out their faces riding past like that, unless you slowed up or stopped.’
No, we didn’t, but I’d know Paul anywhere,’ Sloss insisted.
Maybe, but how’d you know it was the kid with him?
It was. Sure it was. We could see enough of him to know that
And you could see they were arguing? What do you mean by that? Fighting?’
No, but standing like they were having an argument. You know how you can tell when people are arguing sometimes by the way they stand
Ned Beaumont smiled mirthlessly. ‘Yes, if one of them’s standing on the other’s face.’ His smile vanished.
Dashiell Hammett, The Glass Key, [1931][1].

1.2 Argument ­

The noun an argument inherits the two meanings of to argue; an argument1 is a “good reason”, an argument2 is a “dispute”, possibly containing argument1. Grimshaw’s book, Conflict talk. Sociolinguistic investigations of arguments in Conversation (1990), exclusively deals with arguments2 “dispute”, not at all with arguments1, “good reasons”.

A third, specific, meaning adds to these two inherited meaning, argument3, as “the abstract, the theme, the subject matter” (of a literary work, etc.).

“Argument is War” — Lakoff and Johnson have proposed the famous equivalence “argument is war”:

Let us start with the concept argument and the conceptual metaphor argument is war. This metaphor is reflected in our everyday language by a wide variety of expressions:

Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.

His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument. […]

“We can actually win or lose arguments” (1980, p. 4)

Lakoff and Johnson refer to the “concept argument”. If the preceding conclusion is correct, there is not just one but two concepts of argument. To argue2 and argument2 may be associated with a kind of war; but what about argument1 and to argue1?

If interlinguistic comparisons can tell something about words used as concepts, note that, in French, the first series of metaphors easily translates word-for-word; but the expression “we can actually win or lose arguments”, does not. The words to argue, argument, and argumentation have clearly recognizable counterparts in French or Spanish, or in the Romance languages at large:

French argumenter, argument, argumentation
Spanish argumentar, argumento, argumentación

This graphic illustration of the proximity of these words certainly favors the internationalization of the concept. Yet there are deep differences between their respective meanings, which can be roughly represented as follows:

English dispute good reason topic


French good reason topic


Spanish good reason topic

The French word argument and the Spanish word argumento never refer to a dispute. The field of argumentation studies develops from the shared meaning of argument1, “good reason”.

This shows that the meaning of to argue2, argument2 in a language is independent of the concept referred to by the family to argue1, argument1, argumentation.

1.3 Argumentative

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the adjective argumentative shares the two meanings of its morphological base, argument: “controversial” and “disputatious” (MW, Argumentative). The Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary, however, is more categorical (MWLD, Argumentative):

Argumentative: tending to argue; having or showing a tendency to disagree or argue with other people in an angry way: quarrelsome.

an argumentative person
he became more argumentative during the debate.
an argumentative essay.

In this dictionary, argumentative will be attached by default to the family “argumentation”, thus a semantically derived of argument1 “good reason”, unless contextually clear or otherwise specified. An argumentative essay will be taken as “an essay developing an argumentation”; if referring to “a polemical essay”, its quarrelsome character will be explicitly mentioned.

2. Differential orientations:
the French words arguer, argutie

In French, from a morphologic point of view, the verb arguer is the basic verb from which all the argu- words derive:

arguer   un argument      argumenter       une argumentation, etc
an argument”     “to argue”          “an argumentation”, etc.

But arguerF must be set apart; to argue matches argumenterF, nor arguerF. There is a semantic discontinuity between arguerF and argumenterF. When S1 says:

S:   — Pierre argumente en faveur de P, “Peter argues that P”

S recognizes that Peter does give arguments. When he or she says:

S:   — Pierre argue que… “Peter arguesF that…”

S just quotes the argumentative discourse of Peter without taking a position on the validity of the arguments he offers, and even suggesting that they might be fallacious. In a democratic or republican newspaper the construction:

the extreme right arguesF that…

introduces an argumentation considered as weak or invalid. That is, the verbs arguerF and argumenterF have opposing orientations. The former values discourse as argumentative, whereas the latter suggests that it posits only pseudo-arguments.

Quibble may translate in French as argutieF, a word derived from arguerF:

These people are the manipulated agents of subversion, performing instructions and rehashing quibbles [“répétant des arguties”].

ArguerF and argutieF are only used occasionally. ArguerF might be replaced by argumentF between quotation marks. So a pro-wind farm group quotes the arguments of its opponents, the anti-wind farm group, as follows:

Let’s look at some of the ‘arguments’ put forward by anti-wind farms
(Complete example, S. Convergent argumentation)

The concept of arguments, and argumentation studies, benefit from the strong positive orientation that the words argument and argumentation have in ordinary language. The case is the same for the word and the concept of dialogue, S. Interaction, Dialogue, Polyphony.

[1] Quoted after Dashiell Hammett, The Four Great Novels. Picador, 1982. P. 725-726.