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The Common Topics: How to structure your arguments

Think of your day-to-day life. How many people do you talk to everyday? What kinds of things do you talk about? How often do you find yourself trying to persuade someone of something, or even, get a personal belief/opinion across?

As simple as they may seem, these actions fall into what classic philosophers called rhetoric. Broadly speaking, rhetoric is the mix of persuasion and argumentation found in our daily lives, either spontaneously (for example, in a casual conversation) or deliberately (in a debate, negotiation, etc). More specifically, rhetoric can be split into 5 distinct pieces, commonly referred to as the five ‘canons’ of rhetoric. They are:

  1. Invention: Coming up with the ideas that you will express.

  2. Arrangement: Organise your ideas into a comprehensive order.

  3. Style: Deciding which words to use (i.e: how to present your ideas to make them sound better)

  4. Memory: Memorising the text/speech. This piece held more importance in the past when tools such as cue cards or teleprompters were not available.

  5. Delivery: The physical presentation of the ideas.

Different canons will come with more/less difficulty for different people. For example, a natural-born speaker may struggle less with delivery than someone who has stage fright, a person with good organisational skills would likely cruise through the arrangement stage, and so on. However, as a focal point, the invention piece will be used as a guide on how to structure arguments in a logical way.

When focusing on invention, the ‘Common Topics’ come into play. These tools allow for structured brainstorming and thinking, in order for a better-grounded argument. This applies both for pre-planned or even impromptu situations in which you are unsure how to start. Think of the Five Common Topics as bus stops for your mind to pass by in relation to the topic at hand.



Before jumping into arguments and points regarding the theme of discussion, it is crucial to first define what this theme is. The way in which you define something will likely determine the course of your argumentation. This ‘definition’ doesn’t necessarily have to be incredibly specific, but it can be, depending on the circumstance. Let the topic at hand be global warming (as an example) you may want to consider the following questions:

What is global warming?

Does global warming fall into a larger category of topics? Can it be split into narrower topics?

What are the key components of global warming?



By comparing the topic to other things, it is possible to characterise what it is and isn’t like. There are three main points to consider for this topic: similarity, difference, and degree. Below are example questions to consider, once again with global warming as an example theme.

What are the similarities and differences between global warming and ____?

To what extent do these similarities/differences appear?

The common topic of comparison may seem relatively simple, however, it connects greatly to the following topic.



After defining points of comparison, it is crucial to identify and explain how these comparisons are relevant, or what these comparisons can tell us about the chosen theme. You may also want to dive into the causes and consequences of the theme at hand at this stage and explore its connections to larger issues. Consider the following:

What do the aforementioned similarities and differences tell us about global warming?

Then, you may want to continue branching outwards:

How does global warming relate to ___?

Does ___ result in global warming? If not, what does, and how does it do so?

What are the effects of global warming on a smaller, and on a worldwide scale?



Now a more abstract approach is advised. Consider what is certain/uncertain, or what is likely/unlikely regarding the topic at hand. You can also use circumstance to determine what happened in the past and whether it is likely to happen in the future. For instance:

Is it possible/impossible for global warming to take place when ____?

What might induce/prevent global warming?

In what times are we certain that global warming took place in the past? In what ways is it likely to appear in the future?



Finally, to strengthen your argument, consider what other people believe in regarding the topic, or even, pre-existing facts that solidify your position. A great example of this is infomercials that get people to say how well a product worked for them (although these are often staged to a certain degree, the use of a testimonial comes in handy).

For this topic, you can resort to expert opinions, testimonials from those who have more contact with the theme, numerical data, well-known facts surrounding the theme, or use past examples as evidence. Consider the following:

What information can I use to back up my point of discussion?

Is this information reliable?

What time does this information come from? What can this tell me about how the theme has changed over time?


Applying the Five Common Topics to your life

Although different themes may call for different topics, the five Common Topics will likely serve as a good starting point for any situation. Oftentimes, adding even the slightest bit of structure to what you will say will allow for a more understandable, persuasive, and well-spoken argument. It also prevents you from getting off-topic or distracted and allows for a more focused line of reasoning. Although these topics can appear unknowingly in the speeches of many, taking the time to acknowledge and knowingly apply them more often will turn this into a subconscious practice so that brainstorming and coming up with ideas becomes less straining. Despite this concept coming from classical philosophers of the past, it can still be applied to present-day situations, showing how timeless, and common, they really are.



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