Solving “Conclusion” Questions
Here are some ways a Conclusion question might ask you to find the main conclusion of an argument:
- Which one of the following most accurately states the conclusion drawn in the argument?
- Which one of the following sentences best expresses the overall conclusion of the surrealist’s reasoning?
- The main point of the argument above is that…
Identifying the conclusion should be one of the first things you do after you carefully read an argument. You should know what the argument’s conclusion is before you read the question.
Find the Main Conclusion
The main conclusion is the reason why the author sat down and wrote the argument. It’s what the author tries to sell you on.
The main conclusion is not a summary of the overall argument. It’s one specific claim that the author tries to prove using the premises. It’s almost always stated explicitly in the passage, whether it’s at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end. Sometimes it’s an entire sentence. Sometimes it’s just part of a sentence.
Everything else in the argument is a premise (a fact that supports the conclusion), an intermediate conclusion (a claim that is supported by a premise and, in turn, supports the main conclusion), or background information (a fact that doesn’t play a logical role in the argument).
Restate Conclusions that Refer Back to Other Things
If a conclusion uses a word like this, that, such, or any other pronoun, it’s probably referring back to an idea that was stated earlier in the passage. Incorporate that idea into your own rewording of the main conclusion. Consider the example below. What idea does the pronoun they refer back to?
Joe: Many scientists argue that the world is getting warmer. But they are wrong. This year’s average temperatures are colder than last year’s were.
“They” in the conclusion refers to “scientists.” To restate the conclusion in your own words, ask yourself: What does Joe try to prove? He tries to tell us that stupid scientists are wrong and that the world isn’t getting warmer.
You need to fully understand what the main conclusion is before you start looking at the answer choices.
Look for Opposing Viewpoints
If the passage begins by telling you what other people believe or claim, the main conclusion will often come right after and reject that claim.
In the global-warming argument above, the first sentence is an opposing viewpoint, the second is the main conclusion, and the third is a premise. The main conclusion doesn’t have to come right after an opposing viewpoint, but it usually does.
Use Argument Indicators Cautiously
The words therefore, thus, and so come right after a premise and right before a conclusion. But they do not necessarily introduce the main conclusion. These words can also introduce an intermediate conclusion.
Similarly, the words because, since, and for usually come right before a premise, but they could also introduce an intermediate conclusion.
Students who rely solely on indicator words often misidentify the main conclusion—especially when the test-writers put the main conclusion at the beginning of the passage and then use a conclusion indicator for an intermediate conclusion near the end of the argument. Consider the following example:
Annalisa: John should stop going to chess club. John hates board games, and chess is a board game. Thus, he hates chess.
Can you figure out the main conclusion in Annalisa’s argument?
In terms of argument structure, here’s what Annalisa says:
Annalisa: (Main conclusion). (Premise), and (premise). Thus, (intermediate conclusion).
Many test-takers mistakenly identify the last sentence as the main conclusion. They get distracted by the “thus” in the last sentence, and they miss how the last sentence supports the first. To be clear, the last sentence is a conclusion, but it’s not the main conclusion. The correct answer to a Conclusion question would restate the first sentence, not the last.
In short, argument indicators can be helpful, but don’t assume that they always precede the main conclusion.
Use the Therefore Test
If you’re debating between two conclusions stated in an argument, use the therefore test to figure out which is the main conclusion and which is the supporting intermediate conclusion. Here’s how:
- State the first conclusion, then the word “therefore,” and then the second conclusion. If this arrangement makes sense, then the first conclusion supports the second conclusion. The second conclusion is probably the main conclusion.
- Test the reverse order. If it makes more sense to state the second conclusion, then the word “therefore,” and then the first conclusion, then the first conclusion is probably the main conclusion.
Consider the following argument:
All big fish have sharp teeth, and Mike likes any creature that has sharp teeth. Sharks are big fish. It follows that sharks have sharp teeth and that Mike likes them.
In the example above, which arrangement makes more sense?
- Mike likes sharks. Therefore, Sharks have sharp teeth.
- Sharks have sharp teeth. Therefore, Mike likes sharks.
The second one makes more sense. Mike’s feelings about sharks have no impact on sharks’ teeth. But whether sharks have sharp teeth does impact whether Mike likes them. The main conclusion is “Mike likes sharks.”
- Where does the conclusion appear in the passage?
- If there’s a word like “therefore,” does it always introduce the main conclusion?
- No, it could introduce an intermediate conclusion.