I thought a million years of teaching freshman composition had inured me to people using the wrong word, but I was wrong.
Lately I’ve seen the word argumentative used in place of argument all over my Twitter feed, and the mistake is being made by English teachers.
Argument means polite discussion
An argument is a discussion in which differing perspectives are offered on a single topic and discussed within certain rules of logic and civility that are traditionally referred to as argumentation.
Traditionally, English teachers spoke about argument essays, which meant a text in which the writer was expected to know what people who disagreed with her position believed and, whenever possible, to show that the opposition’s logic or was flawed or its evidence inadequate to support the opposition’s position.
Argument is a forensic activity
When I was a teenager, the organization that’s now known as the National Speech and Debate Association was the National Forensic League. Forensics in that context meant the study of the formal art of argumentation. In other contexts, forensics is the use of science and technology to investigate and establish facts in, for example, an accident or legal proceeding.
Arguments are supposed to be forensic activities. Their goal is to establish facts upon which people can agree.
That means arguments are not argumentative.
Argumentativeness is a negative quality
Being argumentative is anything but civil. All the meanings of argumentative are negative. It means, according the American Heritage Dictionary 5th ed., "contentious, disputatious, quarrelsome, scrappy."
The American Heritage Dictionary gives these examples of how argumentative is used: "an argumentative child; a contentious mood; a disputatious scholar; a quarrelsome drinker; a scrappy exchange."
When English teachers use the term argumentative writing, they suggest to their students raised voices, slammed doors, and hurled insults.
Let’s not give that impression.
Twentieth century society is uncivil enough without teachers implying argumentative behavior belongs in academic classrooms.