What Is a Circular Argument in Writing?


If someone says you’re making a circular argument, it’s because the argument you’re making is circular. 

Does that make sense?

Of course it doesn’t. You can’t logically define something using a circular argument because a circular argument is a claim where both portions rely on the other’s truthfulness. In other words, you can’t define something by using it as the definition. 

What is a circular argument in writing?

To illustrate what we meant by “you can’t define something by using it as the definition,” here are a few examples of a circular argument: 

  • Ryan makes delicious burgers because he’s an excellent cook. 
  • You have to drive under the speed limit because it’s illegal to drive faster than the speed limit.
  • This offer can’t be a pyramid scheme because pyramid schemes are illegal. 

A circular argument, also known as circular reasoning, is considered a logical fallacy because when you make this type of argument, you aren’t supporting your claim with logic. Instead, you’re using your claim to “prove” that the reasons for the claim are true. 

To go back to our first example, imagine Ryan’s brother says that Ryan makes delicious burgers. You ask what makes the burgers so delicious, and he tells you it’s because Ryan is an excellent cook. That might be true, but logically, it doesn’t support the claim. A logical way to support this claim might be to explain that Ryan developed a unique spice blend for burgers, or that he uses high-quality ingredients.  

A circular argument adheres to the formula “X is true because of Y, and Y is true because of X,” which is a circular formula.

Types of circular arguments

Circular reasoning can appear in just about any type of communication. You might run into it in literature, social media comments, speeches, or everyday conversation. People use circular arguments for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it’s because they genuinely believe they’re making a logical statement. In other cases, it’s to acknowledge a paradox or critique a situation that forces people to make illogical choices. 

It’s not uncommon to come across circular reasoning in political rhetoric. Often, this is in relation to the lawfulness or unlawfulness of a specific policy. 

Another common circular argument you might encounter in political speech is the assertion that elected officials should be respected because they’re elected officials. 

Paradox

Circular arguments are also made as a way to ponder paradoxes. Perhaps the most famous paradox is this: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

A paradox is a statement that seems to contradict itself, but in fact, it is logically sound. Often, they’re meant to be thought-provoking. Here are a few examples: 

  • You can save money by spending money. 
  • You don’t know what you don’t know. 
  • It’s the beginning of the end. 

A circular argument formatted as a paradox might look like this: 

  • Nobody’s read that book because it’s always checked out of the library. 
  • “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” —Yogi Berra 

Catch-22

A similar concept, a catch-22, refers to a scenario where someone can’t “win” because their only options are contradictory and force them to make undesirable choices. 

The term comes from the 1961 novel Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. In the book, an army psychiatrist explains to the protagonist, an army pilot, that any pilot who seeks a mental evaluation in an attempt to be excused from flying dangerous missions—a task that only pilots deemed mentally stable are permitted to do—is demonstrating his mental stability by doing so. This is because being concerned for your own safety is a rational concern, and by having this rational concern, a pilot proves his sanity and thus his suitability for flying dangerous missions. 

The paradox, or catch-22, is that if a pilot isn’t concerned for his safety, he likely isn’t mentally stable enough to fly these missions. 

Take a look at this real-life catch-22 example: 

  • I can’t get a job because I don’t have experience. But I can’t gain experience without getting a job. 

Begging the question 

Begging the question is another concept that sometimes involves circular reasoning. It is characterized by a person making an illogical statement, i.e., asserting the first half of their statement’s validity as a way to prove that the second half of their statement is also true. Here are a few examples: 

  • Alligators make great pets. That’s why we should adopt an alligator. 
  • Pizza is delicious, so we should order it every day. 
  • You have the right to take up two parking spots because there’s no rule against taking up two parking spots. 

All three of these examples start with a claim, but the first two aren’t examples of circular reasoning. Rather, they assert subjective opinions as fact, then they claim these facts as evidence to support the statements that follow. The third example is a circular argument because it makes a claim, then it attempts to support that claim without offering logically sound evidence. 

Circular argument fallacy examples

  • Marcelo is good at communicating because he’s great at talking to people. 
  • Dogs are called “man’s best friend” because they’re the friendliest animals.
  • You need to do your homework because homework is required for this class. 

How to avoid using circular arguments in your writing 

You should avoid making circular arguments in your academic and professional writing because a circular argument—like any logical fallacy—undermines your position. With creative and personal pieces, you have the freedom to be as illogical as you’d like to be because you aren’t analyzing or presenting data, defending a position, making an argument, or attempting to persuade your reader to take action. 

Having a circular argument in your writing also tells readers that you don’t have a strong understanding of your topic. Whether this is the case or not, it’s something a circular argument communicates. This is why it’s important to carefully read your first draft after you finish writing it and as you make edits, and that you revise with an articulate, logically sound final version in mind. When you go back to proofread your last draft, double-check for logical fallacies and inconsistencies one last time before you submit your work. 

Here’s how you do that: As you read your first draft, note all the claims you make. Then, note the evidence you provide for each of these claims. Can you support each claim with information from your sources? If you can’t support a claim in your writing, find evidence that supports it and work the evidence into your piece. Sometimes, this is as simple as rewording a passage to make the evidence clearer. In other cases, if you can’t support your claim with evidence, it may be a sign that it’s logically unsound.

Circular argument FAQs

How do circular arguments work?

Circular arguments use the following formula: “X is true because of Y, and Y is true because of X.”

Essentially, a circular argument makes a claim, and then it assumes certain evidence is true because it appears to support that claim. 

What are circular arguments in writing?

Circular arguments follow the same structure in writing that they do in spoken conversation. When an arguer introduces a conclusion as proof that the evidence following it is true, they’re making a circular argument. 

What is an example of a circular argument?

  • Maya has lots of friends because she’s popular. 
  • I can’t get a job because I don’t have experience. But I can’t gain experience without getting a job. 
  • You can’t quit the team because then you won’t be part of the team.



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