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Five Debate Terms to Learn if You Want to Sound Smart

People react in various ways when they hear a bunch of jargon being thrown around. Some people react by assuming the people using the big words have superior intelligence. Some people react by assuming the people using the big words are just pretentious. Some people react by becoming bored, and some react by becoming curious. 

I remember when I first started debate as a high school student. My reaction was probably a mix of all the above. Like most people, I also felt overwhelmed. I remember thinking it would take me years to learn all of that specialized language. Not so. It takes surprisingly little time to get a basic grasp of some key terms in any discipline, including argumentation. 

The reasons I want to share these terms with you are 1) because you have heard most or all of these terms before, but you may not know their definitions; and 2) because learning new words is not just a way to sound smarter in your next argument. Learning definitions means you’re learning concepts, which will open up your thinking and actually make you a more critical and effective arguer. Sure, you’ll win more arguments, but more importantly, you’ll learn more stuff and become an all-around better person

Here is a list of 5 key terms to get you started: 

  1. Status Quo: The existing state of affairs; in short, the way things are. 
  • An argument, or debate, implies that at least someone has a problem with the status quo and wants it to change. Presumably, they have an idea for how it ought to change.
  1. Burden of Proof: The responsibility to prove that the status quo needs to be changed.
  • The side in the debate that wants to change the status quo has the burden of proof. That means it is their responsibility, their burden, to show that the status quo needs changing. They cannot just say they want it to change and expect people to agree. They must provide evidence that the status quo is creating real harms, and that their plan will solve the problem. If the other side in the debate is fine with the status quo and simply wants things to stay more or less the way they are, then they have no burden of proof. If they agree that there is a problem with the status quo, but they disagree as to the solution, then they also take on the burden of proof. 
  • For instance, if two people are dating and one wants to get married but the other person does not, the burden of proof is on the one who wants to get married. They cannot simply say, “Well, I want to be married and you don’t. Why should you have your way, but I can’t have mine? This isn’t fair.” The opposite situation applies here as well. If one person in a relationship wants to break up (change the status quo of the relationship), even they have the burden of proof. Of course, legally they are free to leave with no explanation. But argumentation theory and human decency would dictate that they owe the other member of the relationship some evidence and explanation. In this case, meeting that burden will not be difficult. All they have to say is “Because I do not have feelings for you,” and it should be sufficient.
  1. Warrant: A justification for an action; an explanation for how the evidence merits the change being proposed. 
  •  A lot of people hear the word “warrant” and they think it’s just a synonym for “evidence,” or they assume it’s a legal document allowing law enforcement to search private property, which is true. But there is more to the term. Evidence can be good or bad; it can be reliable or not, recent or not, relevant or not. In other words, the phrase “your claim is unwarranted” does not necessarily mean “your claim lacks evidence.” It may mean “the evidence you have provided for your claim is not sufficient to justify the change you want.” A warrant is the reasoning that shows that the evidence supports the claim. 
  • For instance, I can say, “You should go see the new horror flick at the theater.” In this scenario, I am the one who wants a change in the status quo. I want my friend to go from not seeing the movie to seeing the movie. That means I have the burden of proof. My friend might respond, “Why should I?” Since I have the burden of proof, I am now under obligation to provide a justification for this change. So, I might say, “Because I’ve talked to three people who’ve seen it, and they all say it’s great.” I’ve now provided evidence, but that evidence might not warrant the change. My friend might respond, “Which people?” Or, “What about other people who’ve seen it? What do they say?” Or, “What about the Rotten Tomatoes rating?” Or, “Do you even know whether I like horror movies or not?” In other words, I provided evidence, but I did not provide a sufficient warrant. 
  1. Topicality: The quality of being relevant to the topic at hand.
  • This term simply means staying on topic. So often in arguments, people commit the red herring fallacy, meaning they try to change the subject, or they provide evidence and reasoning that does not address the specific claim being argued.
  • For instance, you might be in an argument with your significant other over whether or not you ought to do more of the laundry. You might respond by saying, “You might do more laundry, but you’re such a jerk about it. I can’t stand the way you complain.” Your significant other may or may not be a jerk, but that is a separate question. It is not topical if the specific debate at the moment is whether or not you ought to be doing more laundry. 
  1. Solvency: The quality of being able to remove the problems of the status quo. 
  • This one is seen in most amateur arguments. A person may have a serious disagreement with the status quo. They may have even proven that the status quo should be changed. But if they are proposing a particular course of action in order to make that change, they also have to show that the course of action will, in fact, solve the problem. Most people are good at pointing out problems, but they are not good at coming up with plans that are solvent. They probably have a policy they like, but can they show that it will work? That’s hard to do.
  • For instance, we might return to the issue of gun rights. We can all agree that the United States has a problem with mass shootings. By the way, if both parties in an argument agree that there is a problem, then both parties assume the burden of proof. The argument then becomes a debate over which person has the better solution. One side might say we need more prayer and church. But of course this plan would appear to lack solvency, since gun death rates vary widely and do not seem to conform to red state or blue state sensibilities. Likewise, the solution to arm all civilians may create more problems, since states that passed right to conceal carry laws experienced more gun violence and death, not less.  On the opposing side, you might argue that we should simply ban guns. However, a plan that is solvent must also be practicable, meaning doable. In a nation like the United States, such a move would likely be read as unconstitutional and certainly almost impossible to enforce, which would render its solvency unviable. 


Learning a few key terms in argumentation is a good idea if your goal is not only to appear more in control of an argument but also if you want to think in a more strategic, critical way; think on your feet; articulate your thoughts; better understand your opponent; and generally, be more informed as a citizen of the world. In future blogs, we will explore common fallacies that render arguments weak.    


Ben Crosby is a professor of rhetoric and a communication skills consultant. He teaches courses in public speaking and presenting, argumentation and debate, technical and professional communication, persuasion and selling, and the history of rhetoric.

His work is regularly published in his field’s top academic journals and conferences. He is also the author of Presentations as Performance: A Professional’s Guide to Better Speaking.

Ben’s areas of expertise are Public Speaking, Presentation Skills, Argumentation, Sales Training, and Professional Writing.

In his free time, he spends time with his wife, Rebecca, their four kids, and their cat, Arza. He is an avid Utah Jazz fan.

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