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My mom always told me growing up that you had to learn to follow the rules before you could learn to break them, and this is certainly true of debate. There are many customs and rules that should be followed by the vast majority of debaters but can be broken in a way that actually elevates the debate under certain circumstances by skilled debaters, and I’m going to go through a couple of these instances in this article.

Getting Definitions from a Dictionary 

It is commonly expected of new debaters that they will define all the major terms in the resolution using a dictionary or other reputable source, and this is for good reason. It’s the easiest way to make sure the definitions used are accurate and authoritative. However, it isn’t uncommon to struggle to find any one source or definition that includes every aspect of a term relevant to the debate while still being understandable to the judge. This is why some skilled debaters will make up their own definition so that the definition can be the best fit for the debate possible. That being said, you can’t just make up whatever you want for a definition, and if you are considering making up a definition, you should make sure it has two particularly important qualities:

  • Unbiased and easy to agree with: Making up a definition isn’t particularly helpful if it gets challenged every round, especially since it has very little authority, so it will be harder to win a definitional debate. If you are going to make up a definition, make sure it is one you think most opponents will agree with.
  • Well-supported by other definitions: If no single definition says what you want to, that doesn’t mean your definition shouldn’t follow common trends seen in formal definitions or well-supported by other sources. This is especially helpful for any situation in which your definition is challenged.

Using Contentions

Many when they start debating are told to have 2-3 contentions. This is for good reason, as it is important to have some form of structure for your arguments to help your judge understand and keep the debate well-organized. That being said, contentions are not the only way to structure your debate case. A few other options are as follows:

  • Following the logical structure of an argument or syllogism: A really common alternative is to structure your case around the premises of a syllogism and use that to give your case structure.
  • Evidence or examples: If your case is extremely evidence- or example-heavy and you have 2-4 main examples/pieces of evidence, sometimes they can be used to provide some structure.

Only Quoting Authoritative Sources

Obviously having authoritative evidence and sources is valuable for any debate case, and we shouldn’t just trust anything a random blog we found said. But there are multiple reasons we could quote a source that doesn’t require the source to be authoritative:

  • We like their phrasing: Many logical arguments stand on their own without any evidence but are difficult to explain. In these situations it can make sense to quote a non-authoritative source that explains the argument well for the clarity it provides rather than the authority it offers.
  • Endearing yourself to the judge: While a funny comment from a celebrity or quote from Captain America might not hold much weight with the judge as far the arguments are concerned, they can go a long way to keep your judge interested and help them to like you.

D. J. an economics major at North Carolina State University. Her debate philosophy is that debate should be fun for everyone, so keep it ethical so your opponent can enjoy the round, keep it entertaining so the judge enjoys it, and keep it lively and humorous so you can enjoy the round too. To learn more about D. J. you can read her bio here: https://www.ethosdebate.com/djmendenhall/ or book coaching with her here: https://www.ethosdebate.com/xl-3/

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