Role Questions

Role questions isolate a point made in the paragraph and ask you for the role played in the argument by that point.

Basically, every point in an argument plays one of three roles:

    • Conclusion (main point being argued)
    • Evidence/premise (support brought for that conclusion)
  • Background information (anything else)

Here’s a simplified example:

Nate: The meteorologist is predicting rain for today. Therefore, you should take an umbrella with you to work.

The claim that the meteorologist is predicting rain plays which one of the following roles in Nate’s argument?

In this case, my conclusion was the second sentence, and my first sentence was brought as a supporting point for that conclusion. So, the answer would be that the role played by the meteorologist’s prediction was that it was a brought as evidence for the conclusion of the argument.

And if the question had instead asked:

The claim that you should take an umbrella to work plays which one of the following roles in Nate’s argument?

The answer would be that it was the overall conclusion of the argument.

Here are some examples of what background information (the third possibility) might look like, using this same oversimplified example argument:

Nate: I like to watch for weather predictions, so I happened to notice that the meteorologist is predicting rain for today. Therefore, you should take an umbrella with you to work.

Nate: I have your best interests at heart, so please listen to what I’m about to tell you. The meteorologist is predicting rain for today. Therefore, you should take an umbrella with you to work.

Nate: I know you don’t like carrying extra things to work, but the meteorologist is predicting rain for today. Therefore, you should take an umbrella with you to work.

Notice how all of these points do not give any support to the conclusion. In other words, they don’t help prove the point that you should take an umbrella to work. (Otherwise, they’d be evidence/premises.) Thus, as said above, background information is anything that doesn’t support the conclusion, and is not itself the conclusion.

If you were asked for the roles of these points, however, the answer wouldn’t simply be “background information”. They would spell out the particular reasons these things were mentioned:

The role of the first of the three examples I just gave you might be “to explain how a premise came to be known”. The second one might be “to lend credibility to the person making the argument”. The third might be “a point that would seem to support an alternative conclusion, but that in spite of which, the conclusion is argued”. (This last one is common – a conclusion is made in spite of a point made earlier in the paragraph. The “alternative conclusion” that that point would have seemed to support in this example would be that you should not bring an umbrella to work, since you don’t like carrying extra stuff.)

The reason I’m grouping all of these different secondary points under “background information” as a catchall for anything that’s not a conclusion or a premise/evidence is that there is no technical term for any of these that you have to know. Once it’s not in the first two categories, you just have to ask yourself “why did the person mention this” and find the answer choice that best represents that.

Here are some examples of points that would bring support for the conclusion and therefore would be considered additional evidence/premises (there can be more than one!).

Nate: It’s important to be prepared for any likely scenario, and the meteorologist is predicting rain for today. Therefore, you should take an umbrella with you to work.

Nate: Umbrellas are light and easy to carry, and the meteorologist is predicting rain for today. Therefore, you should take an umbrella with you to work.

Nate: The meteorologist is predicting rain for today. Therefore, you should take an umbrella with you to work. After all, you like to stay dry whenever possible.

Notice how these are all points that lend support to the conclusion that you should take an umbrella to work. They all help to prove that point, and therefore they are considered supporting points, not to be confused with the three previous examples which were simply background info.

There’s only one other term you need to know: subsidiary/secondary conclusion. This is a point that is both a conclusion and premise/evidence for another conclusion. For example:

Nate: The meteorologist is predicting rain for today. Therefore, you should take an umbrella with you to work. Hence, since you don’t have an umbrella, you should borrow my umbrella.

Sentence #1 was brought as support to prove sentence #2. Sentence #2 was then itself brought as support to prove the final conclusion that you should borrow my umbrella. In other words, the claim that you should take an umbrella with you to work was a subsidiary conclusion for which some support was brought and which itself, in turn, gave support to the main conclusion.

Bonus question: can you determine the role of this point?

Nate: The meteorologist is predicting rain for today. Therefore, you should take an umbrella with you to work. Hence, since you don’t have an umbrella, you should borrow my umbrella.

Answer: it is also brought as evidence for the final conclusion, along with the subsidiary conclusion in sentence #2. The fact that you should take an umbrella to work, combined with the fact that you don’t own an umbrella, together prove the conclusion (that you should borrow mine). Thus, they are each brought as partial support for the conclusion.

The best thing to do on these questions if you’re stuck is to first identify the conclusion. The conclusion is the star around which every other point in the paragraph orbits – in other words, the role of every other point made is determined in relation to the main point. Seeing how the point in question relates to the main conclusion of the argument will shed light on the role of that point in the overall argument. Does it bring support? If not, why was it mentioned? Or, is it the conclusion itself? (Remember, the conclusion is always the main point being argued, for which support is brought. The main conclusion can’t also serve as support for something else, or it would be a subsidiary conclusion, as we’ve said.)

Take a look at this example from the June 2007 LSAT:

Here, the main conclusion is that “what awaits us is probably a mere alteration of the human mind rather than its devolution”. The first sentence is background information – a complaint that people make which we are about to argue is not a cause for worry. The second sentence, which is the focus of our question, is a supporting point for the conclusion. However, there are a couple of tricky answer choices here:

(A) Yes it is evidence, but no it’s not evidence for the claim that the intellectual skills fostered by the literary media are being destroyed by the electronic media – that’s the complaint suggested in the first sentence, which we are trying to argue against!

(B) This hypothesis was never stated and is certainly not being advanced here.

(C) Correct. It was precisely this, an example of a cultural change that didn’t have a negative effect on the human mind, which therefore supports our conclusion, that the cultural change in question doesn’t necessarily bring a negative effect on the human mind either. This is tricky because it doesn’t have the words ‘premise’ or ‘evidence’ in it, and other answer choices do. It simply explains how this point supports the conclusion without using those terms. That’s OK, since it’s still accurate.

(D) Yes it is evidence, but it’s not evidence that the claim made in the first sentence is untrue. Rather, it’s evidence that even though the claim may be true, it’s not a cause for worry. Always read closely.

(E) No it’s never dismissed, and also, it supports our conclusion, not a conclusion that we criticize.

This question is a great example of why not to focus too hard on word cues on the LSAT. The fact that a certain word is or is not present will not necessarily indicate the veracity of an answer choice – the authors of the LSAT sometimes write questions specifically to fool people who are simply looking for word cues, and this is perhaps an example of a question like that. Rather than call it a supporting point, answer choice (C) simply mentions how it acts to support the conclusion. As long as you understood what the argument was saying and that this was a supporting point, you’d have to see (C) as being a true statement and therefore being the right answer.

In summary:

    • Every point in an argument is either a conclusion, supporting point, or background info
    • In the case of background info, you must ask yourself “why was this point made?”
    • A subsidiary/secondary conclusion is something for which support is brought that then in turn serves the final conclusion
  • When in doubt, identify the main conclusion and figure out how the point identified relates to it
  • Even if the defining word you’re looking for doesn’t appear in an answer choice, if it is accurately describing the role of the statement, then it must be correct

For full clarity on very tough logical reasoning questions, check out my LSAT course.

Oh, and if you haven’t already, download your Free MasterLSAT Study Guide, which will tell you exactly what you need to do to reach a 99th-percentile score on the LSAT.

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