How Should You Begin an Argument?

I just did a 7:15 a.m. Skype-in with AP Language students at Colegio Nuevo Grenada in Bogota, Colombia. The connection got too shaky, and I had to resort to messaging. I could hear the students, but they couldn’t hear me. So I typed furiously. The session produced an unexpected benefit: a transcript. (Each “Q” is a question asked by an individual student. “J”: c’est moi.)


Q: How can you remember all those tools of rhetoric in an argument? And how do you know which ones to use?

J: I know how you feel. The best thing is not to remember every single tool. Just remember one thing at a time. It’s like learning a sport. The first tool to remember: Set your goal. What do you want out of the argument? To sustain a relationship? To talk someone into something? The second tool: Stick to talking about the future. That’s where problems and differences get resolved.


Q: What’s the best rhetoric to use in a college admissions essay?

J: Go to the page on my website about how to write a college essay. The biggest advice I give: Tell a story. Most college recruiters are really bored from all those thousands of essays they have to read. So give them a good yarn. And no grandmothers!!!! Everybody exploits his grandmother.


Q: Can you talk more about multiple yoking, or the play-by-play technique?

J: Sports announcers use this figure (technically called diazeugma) as they describe the action. You can use it when you’re telling a story. The best stories and jokes get told in the present tense. And that’s what the play-by-play technique does.


Q: Can you give an example?

A: Rhetoric Boy starts typing...the whole world holds its breath....Will they change their lives with his wisdom, or does he just look like an idiot? He keeps typing...people keep reading... and so on. I think I need more coffee.


Q: Can you talk a bit about ornament?

J: Ornament is a catch-all term.  It stands for anything other than just plain old boring language. Any figure of speech counts as an ornament. Have you studied figures?

Q: Yes. Can you give us an example of using it in real life?

J: Sure! Politicians use it all the time to sound biblical. "And I will lower taxes. And I will put a chicken in every pot. And I will give free medical care. And I will allow people to marry anybody they want. And I will allow them not to. See what that is? Beginning every sentence with "and?"

[Class: Anaphora.]

J: Anaphora!!! Right!! Smart class.


Q: How can you use decorum if you don’t know your audience?

J: Decorum: the art of fitting in. It's hard to fit in if you don't know what you're fitting into. This happens a lot when you write for an audience online. It can go haywire, right? That's why it's important not to get angry or snarky in an email. It can go places you never intended. So... The best kind of decorum for an unknown audience is "semi-formal" speech. Like the kind I used in writing the book. Speak as though you're talking on television to a general audience. And write the same way--as if you're speaking on TV. Make sense?


Q: What do you do when you’re arguing with someone and they point out a fallacy you committed?

J: Never point out someone else's fallacy. But if they point out yours... It's good to praise the other person. "Great catch! I learn so much from you! So tell me: How would you have made my point?" Now you get the person actually telling YOUR point of view. Making YOUR argument. It does great things…like messing up their head. Isn't this great manipulation???


Q: Why is it so important to choose the right medium?

J: Never ask a woman to marry you by email. And never break up with her by email. See the mistake? Email is writing. It lacks the emotional and personal qualities. When a guy proposes to a woman by Jumbotron, that embarrasses the woman.

She would be crazy to say yes. In Thank You for Arguing, I list various media—instant messaging, telephoning, speechmaking, etc.—and link each to the various senses: sight, sound, smell, touch. Touch conveys the most emotion. Sight conveys character. The sound of a voice? Logic. And character.


Q: Can you explain the difference between metonymy and synecdoche?

J: That's a tough one. Linguists argue about this all the time. That's why I like to combine the two into what I call the "belonging trope." Both metonymy and synecdoche take something that belongs and makes it stand for the whole thing. If I say, "Want a toot?", I mean, "Do you want a drink from this bottle? Toot imitates the act of drinking from a bottle. That's a metonymy. But you can call it a belonging trope. Synecdoche takes a member of a group, or a piece of something

and makes it represent the whole. Like “redhead." It stands for a person, but you're just talking about the head. Or "White House," standing for the entire US administration.


Q: What techniques should you use to sell somebody something. [12/4/14, 7:48:32 J: There are lots of ways to get someone to buy something. One tool: repeat what the other person says. Keep repeating what they say, while nodding your head. It shows you're with them in this together. Let them talk more than you do. Then steer the conversation around to a problem—THEIR problem—and show how what you're selling solves it. The idea is to connect what you're selling to the person's own need.

Biggest sales mistake: Talking about how you'd benefit. The point is to make the person feel there's a deep need. And you're the one to fill it!!! Works in love as well as sales. So I need to sell you something. I've noticed that you all are really interested in figures and tropes. Right? I'm glad you're interested. Figures and tropes are critical to your education. (OK, so it's best if I let you do the talking, but I'll keep going) There is a book that solves the problem. I happen to have written it. It's called Word Hero. OK, so here's another technique. Don’t ask for too much. Ask for a little baby step. Back to Word Hero... Here's what you'll want to do... Go to You'll find lots of great figures and tropes, for free!!!

[12/4/14, 7:52:58 AM] Jay Heinrichs: After you read them, you'll probably want to buy my book. It's called... wait for it... Word Hero.


Q: How do you twist a cliché?

J: Twisting a cliché takes a LOT of practice. So...want to give me a cliche?

A: “With power comes great responsibility.”

J: The Batman cliche!

[Class:] Spiderman!

J: Spiderman cliche!! With great typing comes...Great typos. It works in making you look clever. Without trying very hard.


Q: Which works better in day to day persuasion, inductive or deductive logic?

J: That's a brilliant Q. Deductive logic is more...logical. It's great in formal argument, such as in a paper. But in regular speech, inductive argument works better. That's because stories work better than mere facts in persuasion. And induction has to do with stories. Examples, that is, in the form of stories. So if you talk in anecdotes, people see them as a kind of truth. Even if those anecdotes are made up, or just support your point of view. Sherlock is all about deduction, right? And he's really, really annoying. Unpersuasive. So... deduction for formal stuff... and induction for informal, regular persuasion. Make sense?


Q: What’s the best way to begin an argument?

A: The biggest thing to think about is your ethos. Establish your character, or image, with the other person. Do that by (a) showing you care about the other person. (b) Show you know what you're talking about. And (c): Show you share the same values. I call these traits "Caring, Craft, and Cause." They get the other person to like and trust you--the most powerful tool of all. Start by asking questions of the other person. Show you sympathize and are familiar with their problem. Finally, talk about some higher cause. "This isn't about whether I should wear high heels. This is about empowering women!”


Q: Thank you!

A: You’re welcome.