Arguing is a process, an activity in which people engage when they produce, exchange, and test reasons for or against claims. The units of discourse produced through arguing are arguments. Arguments are products, texts containing – at minimum – claims and the reasons offered to support them. And argumentation is a point of view, a perspective from which to examine the human activity taking place. The same actions often can be identified from multiple perspectives, one of which is to examine interaction as the invention and exchange of reasons. Argumentation sometimes is also regarded as a genre of discourse, alongside description, narration, and exposition. This view still prevails among some composition teachers, but it is less prevalent than it used to be because in practice the genres are not so sharply defined and the boundaries among them are fuzzy.
To engage in argumentation takes effort. When people do it, they are revealing several underlying assumptions about themselves, about other people, and about what it is they are doing. These assumptions are seldom voiced explicitly, but they are essential to understanding what is going on. They include assumptions about the influence of the audience, the nature of uncertainty, the process of justification, the fundamentally cooperative nature of what may seem like an adversarial exercise, and the assumption of risk.
Often we use the term 'issue' very loosely to mean any sort of dispute. When a supervisor tells a staff member, 'Don’t make an issue of it,' the meaning is roughly the same as 'Don’t argue about it.' But the term issue has a more specific meaning in argumentation theory. Issues are those questions that inhere in the controversy and are vital to an advocate’s success. There are two key ideas in this definition. The first is that issues inhere in the controversy. This means that they derive naturally from it; as soon as you raise the question in controversy, you are led naturally to the issues it poses. Breaking a large question into its component steps will lead you to identify the issues. They are not some formula that is imposed on the controversy or something completely external to it.
Second, the issues are vital to the advocate’s success. This means simply that if you wish to prevail in the controversy, you must respond successfully to the issues. If, for example, you wish to advocate that Congress should pass the president’s budget but cannot show that the president’s budget will meet our current economic conditions, you are not likely to prevail. Likewise, if you wish to show that our city government is unsatisfactory, you will not be able to do that if you fail to establish and defend some criterion for what counts as satisfactory. Because issues are so important, one of the first steps in analyzing a controversy is to determine what the issues are, so that you will be prepared to speak to them.
Types or patterns of issues are called topoi, a Greek term which means 'places' (the singular is topos, place). The places are not literal but metaphorical: they are 'places in the mind' to which one might imagine going in order to find the issues for the given claim. They might be thought of as an aid to discovery, in the same way that a mnemonic device is an aid to memory. Also, topoi are not the particular issues themselves; they are general categories or patterns of issues.