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Counter Premises

When presenting a position, you obviously don’t want to argue against yourself. However, it is often effective to concede certain minor points that weaken your argument. This shows that you are open-minded and that your ideas are well considered. It also disarms potential arguments against your position. For instance, in arguing for a strong, aggressive police department, you may concede that in the past the police have at times acted too aggressively. Of course, you will then need to state more convincing reasons to support your position.

I submit that the strikers should accept the management’s offer. Admittedly, it is less than what was demanded. But it does resolve the main grievance—inadequate health care. Furthermore, an independent study shows that a wage increase greater than 5% would leave the company unable to compete against Japan and Germany, forcing it into bankruptcy.

The conclusion, “the strikers should accept the management’s offer,” is stated in the first sentence. Then “Admittedly” introduces a concession; namely, that the offer was less than what was demanded. This weakens the speaker’s case, but it addresses a potential criticism of his position before it can be made. The last two sentences of the argument present more compelling reasons to accept the offer and form the gist of the argument.

Following are some of the most common counter-premise indicators:

Counter Premise Indicators





even though





in spite of the fact


As you may have anticipated, the test writers sometimes use counter-premises to bait wrong answer-choices. Answer-choices that refer to counter-premises are very tempting because they refer directly to the passage and they are in part true. But you must ask yourself “Is this the main point that the author is trying to make?” It may merely be a minor concession.

In the following argument, notice how the counter-premise is used as bait.
Nature constantly adjusts the atmospheric carbon level. An increase in the level causes the atmosphere to hold more heat, which causes more water to evaporate from the oceans, which causes increased rain. Rain washes some carbon from the air into the oceans, where it eventually becomes part of the seabed. A decrease in atmospheric carbon causes the atmosphere to hold less heat, which causes decreased evaporation from the oceans, which causes less rain, and thus less carbon is washed into the oceans. Yet some environmentalists worry that burning fossil fuels may raise atmospheric carbon to a dangerous level. It is true that a sustained increase would threaten human life. But the environmentalists should relax—nature will continually adjust the carbon level.

Which one of the following, if true, would most weaken the argument in the passage?
  1. Plant life cannot survive without atmospheric carbon.
  2. It is not clear that breathing excess carbon in the atmosphere will have a negative effect on human life.
  3. Carbon is part of the chemical “blanket” that keeps the Earth warm enough to sustain human life.
  4. Breathing by animals releases almost 30 times as much carbon as does the burning of fossil fuels.
  5. The natural adjustment process, which occurs over millions of years, allows wide fluctuations in the carbon level in the short term.
The counter-premise in this argument is the sentence “It is true that a sustained increase [in atmospheric carbon] would threaten human life.” By making this concession, the author shows that he is aware of the alternatives and the potential seriousness of situation; it also provides a hedge against potential criticism that the situation is too important to risk following his advice.
The question asks us to weaken the argument. As mentioned before, to weaken an argument typically you attack a premise (either expressed or suppressed) of the argument. Now, someone who did not fully understand the author’s main point might mistake the counter-premise for a premise. Look at answer-choice (B); it directly attacks the counter-premise by implying that it may not be true. Choice (B) is offered as bait. Some people will fall for it because it attacks a statement in the argument, as should the answer. The best answer, however, will attack the main premise.
One possibility the author did not account for is that the natural adjustment process may require many years and that in the short run dangerous levels of carbon could accumulate. This directly attacks the main premise of the argument, “Nature constantly adjusts the atmospheric carbon level.” Hence the answer is (E).


It is often clarifying to outline an argument’s logical structure. An outline can make clear the argumentative strategy the author is using. The above argument has the following structure:
Main Premise
Explanation of Main Premise
Secondary Premise


The first sentence introduces the main premise that nature constantly adjusts the atmospheric carbon level. The next three sentences explain that premise. Then in the fifth sentence, the secondary premise is introduced that environmentalists are concerned that burning fossil fuels may increase atmospheric carbon to dangerous levels. Then the penultimate (next to last) sentence introduces the counter-premise that an increase in the carbon level would be a threat to human life. This measures the conclusion that environmentalists should relax because nature will adjust the carbon level.

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