These words seem to have similar meanings, possibly with different connotations.

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    It depends on the context. The OED has seven definitions of 'debate' ten of 'argument', when both are used as nouns. A good dictionary should provide an adequate answer. Commented Nov 2, 2011 at 17:30
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    Did anyone else instantly think of youtube.com/watch?v=kQFKtI6gn9Y when they read this question?
    – Joel Brown
    Commented Nov 2, 2011 at 19:37
  • 2
    It depends how loud you're shouting.
    – Hugo
    Commented Nov 2, 2011 at 20:20
  • debate vs argument. If these definitions do not satisfy your curiosity, please explain why in the body of your question. Commented Aug 29, 2012 at 8:17

7 Answers 7


This is a problematic question as the words are not clearcut in most peoples minds, but there are cues, and distinctions to be made.

Debate on wikipedia:

Debate or debating is a formal method of interactive and representational argument. Debate is a broader form of argument than logical argument, which only examines consistency from axiom, and factual argument, which only examines what is or isn't the case or rhetoric which is a technique of persuasion. Though logical consistency, factual accuracy and some degree of emotional appeal to the audience are important elements of the art of persuasion, in debating, one side often prevails over the other side by presenting a superior "context" and/or framework of the issue, which is far more subtle and strategic.

Argue on wikipedia:

In philosophy and logic, an argument is an attempt to persuade someone of something, by giving reasons or evidence for accepting a particular conclusion.[1][2] The general structure of an argument in a natural language is that of premises (typically in the form of propositions, statements or sentences) in support of a claim: the conclusion.[3][4][5] Many arguments can also be formulated in a formal language. An argument in a formal language shows the logical form of the natural language arguments obtained by its interpretations.

Thus a debate is:

  • More formal
  • More intellectual
  • Normally concerns factual events, or theories
  • Concerned with persuading the opposing party to an alternate viewpoint

To argue however is not the same as an arguement. Nor is the logical definition of 'argue' the same as what is commonly referred in public. One can argue the case of XYZ say in law or physics, or one can argue on the street ( in which case bickering would be a more appropriate word ).

For example Alice had an arguement with Bob where she accused him of paranoia, would not be considered a debate. Here Alice argues the point that Bob has paranoia. One can argue at a debate, and an argument, but an arguement is not a debate.

Arguments are thus:

  • Informal
  • Usually personal, though not always
  • Not always concerned with the factual correctness
  • Can be about things both parties are aware of, thus no opposing viewpoints, e.g. a row between a man and wife who have cheated on each other, would not be a debate, as they are both aware and agree that adultery took place.

In most of the cases of 'arguments', one could substitute another word such as row, tiff, bickering, and various other words. Where debate is concerned, one could use the word arguement, but not words such as row or bicker.

Debate has method. Argument does not necessarily.


The difference is that argument usually has a more negative connotation to it. It implies a possible quarrel, people talking over each other and impoliteness.


My wife and I had an argument last night. The neighbors called the cops, that's how loud we were. I was so ashamed.

Debate, on the other hand, is usually a conversation between people expressing two sides of a certain topic in a polite and respectable manner.


I found out my son was drinking more than enough at a party, so I got worried, but I sat down with him, we had a debate and I believe he understands he shouldn't repeat what he did. He is quite intelligent, so we understood each other easily.

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    In practice I think most people would use the word discussion in your second example. Which in any case would simply be a euphemism for I gave him a lecture / good talking-to, since it's unlikely the son spent much time expostulating the advantages of excess indulgence, to be weighed up against the disadvantages set out by the father. Commented Nov 2, 2011 at 17:48
  • @FumbleFingers: sounds OK, do you have a proposal for an improvement of my answer?
    – Frantisek
    Commented Nov 2, 2011 at 17:50
  • Hmm. Tricky. How about Politicians habitually and vociferously disagree with members of other parties, but they rarely engage in the kind of reasoned debate that would help voters to understand and decide for themselves about the issues on which they disagree. Too verbose, I know, but at least it's a context where debate would fit. Mind you, once you include the word "reasoned", the two words become synonyms anyway! Commented Nov 2, 2011 at 18:17
  • Or how about: My wife and I had a debate about where to go on vacation this year. I wanted to go to the Bahamas but she won the debate when she reminded me the kids have been begging to go to Disney World.
    – Josh
    Commented Nov 2, 2011 at 21:47
  • @Josh: Personaly I'd swap your had a debate about for discussed, but there's still the problem that won the debate could just as easily be won the argument. Commented Nov 3, 2011 at 1:59

Within the American legal system, two processes are linked inextricably: debate and argument. If you read any published opinion of any court within the U.S. federal legal establishment you will discover how crucial and far-reaching the two processes are.

In American jurisprudence, an argument is simply a line of reasoning judges use to arrive at a decision or ruling. After they decide a case, the judges issue a ruling, commonly called an opinion. Since within a panel of judges the majority determines the outcome of the case, one of the majority judges writes the opinion, after which the government publishes it and the general public is free to scrutinize it.

The doctrine of stare decisis (“the decision stands”) is foundational to judges’ decision making. As they formulate their arguments—again, their lines of reasoning—that culminate in their decisions, judges are required to respect past judicial decisions, constitutions (federal and state), statutes, and rules and regulations, both past and present.

The notion of stare decisis obviates the need to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, every time a new case arises. Keep in mind, however, that judges are not necessarily bound to rubber stamp past decisions. After all, no two cases are identical. The cast of characters and circumstances change from case to case. Despite obvious similarities there may often be not-so-obvious dissimilarities, called distinguishing facts. Consequently, when you read any published opinion of our nation’s highest appeal court, the U.S. Supreme Court, you detect a virtual debate that has already taken place between the deciding judges in the present case and the deciding judges from past cases.

Of the Supreme Court’s nine justices a majority of only five is required to make the final ruling stand. The justices therefore debate with each other about what that ruling should be. Despite their differences, however, all of them have this in common: they have already “debated” with the law as it already stands (i.e., stare decisis). Each judge, if she has done her job well, has compared and contrasted the present case with past cases, looking for facts (analogous and disanalogous), examining arguments, and balancing her own arguments with those of both her fellow judges in the present and judges from the past. She then either agrees or disagrees (completely or partially) with them and makes her own tentative decision. Subsequently, the second debate begins, but this time it takes place between judges in the present, who may or may not agree with each other’s decisions.

As this debate unfolds, one judge may agree with another judge’s decision but may disagree with the way he arrived at it.  Another judge may disagree with another judge’s decision, period, and then marshal his arguments against the opposing arguments point by point.  After an often spirited exchange of arguments, the justices vote and the majority ruling stands.

Since the judge responsible for writing the majority opinion has already exercised his due diligence by debating justices past and present (virtually and up-close and personal, respectively), he is then free to state the reasons for his decision. His decision can be only one of three: he can concur with, or affirm, the lower court's decision; he can overturn the lower court’s decision; or he can remand the case to the lower court for retrial.

Before issuing her opinion, however, the thinking process of the judge might proceed along these lines: "I agree with the decision Judge Smith made in a landmark case from 1879, in which he concluded ___. However, I do so for different reasons. For example, I argue that ___, rather than ____. Nevertheless, I agree with Judge Smith's decision, and rule accordingly in this case that the lower court erred in convicting the petitioner standing before us today. I therefore overturn the lower court's decision."

Can you see how the debates and arguments go hand in hand? Because of stare decisis the opinion-writing judge, as with all his fellow judges, is required to look back to previously made decisions but is obligated neither to agree with them nor to disagree with them. He is free to use similar or dissimilar arguments and come to the same or different conclusions, based on his own powers of deduction.

The above process then repeats itself with each new case. Imperfect judges make the best decisions they can, balancing what has been decided in the past with what needs to be decided in the present. The process is not without its flaws, but it is certainly better than the vast majority of other methods of judicial decision making extant today.


Perhaps I'm being a Humpty-Dumpty here, but I see the distinction differently from others around here.

A debate is a contest of winning in front of an audience.

An argument is statement of facts and inferences drawn from those facts.

Perhaps my intended meaning can be better specified as making an argument to distinguish it from the more popular connotation of having an argument. That still leaves me prejudiced about debate, however, since I still see wooing an audience as the primary desideratum.


Both words are used to describe conversations in which two (or more) sides take opposing views. As Irene notes, "debate" is normally used to describe conversations about social and political issues, while "argument" is used to describe personal differences. "Senator Smith and Senator Jones had a debate about fiscal policy", but "Senator Smith and Senator Jones had an argument about who should get the bigger office."

Also, "debate" implies a reasonable, civilized expression of opinion, while "argument" implies hostility, raised voices, etc. It is not uncommon to hear, "The candidates' debate turned into an argument", meaning that instead of rationally discussing their differences they started yelling at each other and calling names. Thus, you could say, "Senator Smith and Senator Jones argued about fiscal policy." But you wouldn't normally say, "My wife and I had a debate about how much she spent on clothes", except in a joking way.


Both words suggest exchange of opposing views and disagreement. They do have similar meanings, but the word "debate" is used for formal situations eg social or political debates. You don't refer to a family argument as a "debate" (actually, I've heard this once, but it was an exaggeration meant to make us laugh).


If you’ve ever had to study and participate in a formal debate, there is one underlying and irrefutable aspect to it which may or may not also be used in an argument, but which is necessary and fundamental in a debate: when you debate, you listen to your opponent for the sole purpose of formulating a counter argument. And that is all.

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    I disagree. There are things that one can do in a debate beyond reacting to the opponent, like coming up with new scenarios.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 14:59

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