Breaking Down Arguments Like a Pro

Studying for the LSAT is a difficult and time-consuming pursuit. For one thing, it takes a long time to build familiarity with the way the test is set up. Furthermore, unlike most of the tests people have experienced their academic careers, the LSAT tests skills, not knowledge — so you can’t rote-memorize your way to a good LSAT score.

One of those skills is identifying the conclusion of an argument, as well as the premises that support that conclusion. On its face, it sounds like a very simple skill — how hard can it possibly be to figure out which sentence is an argument’s conclusion? But of course, this is the LSAT, where nothing is as simple as it seems. So today, we’ll break down some basics about spotting premises and conclusions on the LSAT.

Tip #1: The conclusion can be located anywhere in the argument, not just at the end of the paragraph.

OK, so this tip sounds obvious. But when you think about it, in school, you’ve probably been trained to put your conclusion at the end of an argument so that you can build up to it. On the LSAT, though, all bets are off — and for some question types (I’m looking at you, Main Point Logical Reasoning questions) it’s actually very unlikely that the conclusion will be the last sentence of the paragraph.

For instance, take a look back at the first paragraph of this post — the first sentence states that studying for the LSAT is tough, and the following sentences explain why that’s the case. Or, to put it another way, the following sentences provide support for the conclusion that studying for the LSAT is difficult. Similarly, on the LSAT, you’re not thinking about the order in which the sentences are arranged, but rather which sentences provide support for other statements. A support-providing sentence is a premise, and a supported sentence is a conclusion.

Tip #2: Look for key words.

The folks at LSAC aren’t total sadists, so arguments on the LSAT often include key words that will help you identify premises and conclusions. I teach my students to circle key words as they spot them, no matter how obvious the key words may seem; when you’re glancing back at a paragraph, having those visual cue is helpful for organizing your thoughts.

Of course, you should be on the lookout for words like “therefore,” “as a result,” and “so” (e.g. “The mayor has been caught using heroin, so we should not heed his advice on tax policy”), all of which indicate conclusions.

Another word that often precedes a conclusion is “however” — when the argument shifts from one viewpoint to another, the moment it shifts is often where you’ll find the conclusion, as in this example: “Jessica believes that Lindsay Lohan was the one who bit BeyoncĂ©. However, Jessica can’t be correct, because Lindsay was posting snapchats from Barcelona on the day that the alleged biting occurred.”

Words that indicate premises, meanwhile, include “because,” “since,” and “as” (for example, “As Chipotle charges extra for guac, it is clearly out of my price range”).

Spotting premises and conclusions, like most things on the LSAT, becomes exponentially easier with practice. As you’re reading through Logical Reasoning questions and Reading Comprehension passages, take note of sentences that support other statements, and take particular note of the key words that can help you find premises and conclusions. Before long, you’ll be a mean, green, conclusion-finding machine.

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