Debate is a formalized system of (usually) logical argument. Rules governing debate allow groups and individuals to discuss and decide issues and differences. Debate is a common process in deliberative bodies such as parliaments, legislative assemblies, and meetings of all sorts. Outcomes of debates may be decided by voting, by judges, or by combination of both.

Formal debates between candidates for elected office such as the leaders debates and the U.S. presidential election debates are common in democracies.

In the United States, meetings which may involve large group debates are frequently run according to Roberts Rules of Order.

Competitive Debate is a competition most commonly engaged in at the high school and college level. It is a rule-governed contest with two sides, usually presided by a number of judges. Each side is attempting to win the approval of a designated audience, such as the judges. Competitive Debate is a highly organized activity with teams such as the Oxford Union at the local, national, and international level.


Competitive Debate in education

Competitive debate is popular in English-speaking universities and high schools around the world, most notably in North America, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Asia. Many different styles of debate occur under a variety of organizations and rules.

Parliamentary Debate

Parliamentary debate (sometimes referred to as "Parli") is conducted under rules derived from British parliamentary procedure. It features the competition of individuals in a multi-person setting. It borrows terms such as "government" and "opposition" from the British parliament. It is commonly used in Canada.

In the U.S. the American Parliamentary Debate Association is the oldest national parliamentary debating organization, based on the east coast and including all of the Ivy League, although the more recently founded National Parliamentary Debate Association (NPDA) is now the largest collegiate sponsor. In Canada, the Canadian Universities Society for Intercollegiate Debating (CUSID) is the umbrella organization for all university-level debating.

Throughout the rest of the world, parliamentary debate is what most countries know as "debating", and is the primary style practiced in the United Kingdom, Australia, India and most other nations. The premier event in the world of debate, the World Universities Debating Championship, is conducted in the British Parliamentary style.

British Parliamentary Debate

This style of parliamentary debating is used in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Europe and Africa and for the World Universities Debating Championship. Speeches are 7 min in length. Four teams (two on each side) use the following positions:

  • Opening Government:
    • Prime Minister or First Government member and
    • Deputy Prime Minister or Second Government member;
  • Opening Opposition:
    • Leader of the Opposition or First Opposition member and
    • Deputy Leader of the Opposition or "Second Opposition member;
  • Closing Government:
    • Member for the Government or Third Government member and
    • Government Whip or Fourth Government member;
  • Closing Opposition:
    • Member for the Opposition or Third Opposition member and
    • Opposition Whip or Fourth Opposition member.

Speaking order is

  1. Prime Minister
  2. Opposition Leader;
  3. Deputy Prime Minister;
  4. Deputy Opposition Leader;
  5. Member for the Government;
  6. Member for the Opposition;
  7. Government Whip;
  8. Opposition Whip.
Members will deliver a substantive speech of seven minutes duration and should offer points of information while members of the opposing teams are speaking.
Depending on the country, there are variations in speaking time, speaking order, and the number of speakers. For example, in New Zealand, both the leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister offer a short summary as the last two speakers.

American Parliamentary:

Parliamentary debating in North America uses two teams who have the following positions:

  • Government
    • Prime Minister (PM)
    • Member of the Government (MG)
  • Opposition
    • Leader of the Opposition (LO)
    • Member of the Opposition (MO)

Speaking Order: Prime Minister (7 min) Leader of the Opposition (8 min) Member of the Government (8 min) Member of the Opposition (8 min) Leader of the Opposition Rebuttal (4 min) Prime Minister Rebuttal (5 min)

During the first 4 speeches questions can be asked of the speaker, except during the first and last minute of each speech.

In rebuttals, the speaker can be interupted by the other team for two reasons. First, for Points of Order, which are used when a speaker is making a new argument or when they are grossly mischaracterizing arguments. Second, for Points of Personal Privilage, which are used when the speaker makes offensive claims, or personal attacks. Points of Personal Privilage are almost never seen.

Policy Debate

Policy Debate is primarily a US style of debating where two teams of two students advocate or oppose a resolution calling for a change in policy by the government. The style of argumentation features extensive use of citations and quotations from news sources and technical material. In the US, high school Policy Debate is overseen by the NFL, the NCFL and the NCFCA. Inter-Collegiate policy debate is overseen by the National Debate Tournament (NDT) (, the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) (, the National Educational Debate Association, and the Great Plains Forensic Conference. Policy debate often involves cross examination. Generally, 8 speeches are given as follows: 1st affirmative constructive (1AC) 8 minutes cross examination of 1st aff speaker 3 minutes 1st negative constructive (1NC) 8 minutes cross examination of 1st neg speaker 3 minutes 2nd Affirmative Constructive (2AC) 8 minutes cross examination of 2nd aff speaker 3 minutes 2nd Negative Constructive (2NC) 8 minutes cross examination of 2nd neg speaker 3 minutes 1st Negative Reubuttal(1NR) 5 minutes 1st Affirmative Rebuttal ) 5 minutes 2nd Negative rebuttal 5 minutes 2nd Affirmative rebuttal 5 minutes

The topic area changes annually. Recent topics include mental healthcare (2002-03), the oceans (conservation) (03-04), UN peacekeeping (04-05), and civil liberties (05-06).

Simulated legislature

Other high school debate events such as Student Congress, Model United Nations, European Youth Parliament, and the American Legion's Boys State and Girls State events are activities which are based on the premise of the contestants acting as representatives in a mock legislative body.

Moot court

Moot court (simulating appellate advocacy) and Mock trial (usually simulating criminal trials) competitions for law school, undergraduate, and (in some regions) high school students are held throughout the United States.

Lincoln-Douglas debate

Lincoln-Douglas Debate, is a US format of debating named after the famous series of Senate debates between the two candidates, has two participants who compete against each other. The arguments center around philosophy or abstract values, and thus it is also called a value debate. Lincoln-Douglas debate tends to require less evidence than policy debate, and thus emphasizes logic and reasoning. Most LD cases center around a core value and a value criterion, with the value representing the highest concept that can be achieved under a given resolution and the criterion being the best way to achieve or measure the value. While there are regional variations, most good LD debates occur when both sides agree on a set value, and then must argue their criteria on the best way to achieve or measure that core value. Lincoln-Douglas debate differs markedly on the national circuit from the local circuit. The national circuit is based more on the argumentation itself (known as "the flow"), while the local circuit focuses on "persuasiveness" and presentation to a greater extent.

World Schools Style

World Schools Style (or WSS) is a debating style which is fairly easy to learn. This is a combination of the British Parliamentary and Australian formats, designed to meet the needs of the World Schools Debating Championships tournament. Each debate comprises eight speeches delivered by two three-member teams (the Proposition and the Opposition). Each speaker delivers an eight-minute speech; then both teams deliver a "reply speech" lasting four minutes, with the last word being reserved for the Proposition

Each team has three speakers:

  • First speaker of the Proposition (speaks for 8 minutes, presents the case of the Proposition, defines the motion, gives 2/3 of the arguments of the Proposition)
  • First speaker of the Opposition (speaks for 8 minutes, may accept the definitions or contest them and give an alternative, rebuts Proposition arguments, presents the case of the Opposition, gives 2/3 of the arguments of the Opposition).
  • Second speaker of the Proposition (speaks for 8 minutes, further develops the case of the Proposition, rebuts the arguments of the first speaker of the Opposition, gives 1/3 of the arguments of the Proposition)
  • Second speaker of the Opposition (speaks for 8 minutes, further develops the case of the Opposition, rebuts the arguments given by the second speaker of the Proposition, gives 1/3 of the arguments of the Opposition)
  • Third speaker of the Proposition (speaks for 8 minutes, rebuilds the case of the Proposition, rebuts the arguments of the second speaker of the Opposition, concludes case)
  • Third speaker of the Opposition (speaks for 8 minutes, rebuilds the case of the Opposition, rebuts the arguments of the second speaker of the Opposition - may not introduce a new argument!)
  • Reply speaker of the Opposition (speaks for 4 minutes, outlines clash point, evaluates debate, gives the final appeal) - either the first or the second speaker of the Opposition, usually the first
  • Reply speaker of the Proposition (speaks for 4 minutes, outlines clash point, evaluates debate, has the last word in protected time!) - either the first or the second speaker of the Proposition, usually the first

During main speeches, members of the opposing team may offer Points of Information to express a question or brief remark, these shall not exceed 23 seconds or three sentences. First and last minutes of main speeches as well as the entire duration of reply speeches are protected, that means, no Points of Information may be offered. There is no cross examination. The Proposition has to prove the motion for a reasonable majority of cases, while it is not enough for the Opposition to present reasonable doubt.

Debate tournaments

High school speech tournaments are held every week during the season. Regional tournamnents, often held in high schools, attract other local or regional teams. Major tournaments (such as Harvard, Oxford, Glasgow etc) attract competators from across the country. Some national circuit tournaments are held at colleges (such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc.) while others are sponsored by debate teams (Greenhill, Glenbrooks, Hendrick Hudson, etc.)

In addition to the regular season, competative debate features national and international championship tournaments. In the US the various national championships attract debaters from all over the country as well as from overseas. Each of the US national organizations hold national championship tournaments including the NFL national championships, CFL, NCFCA, CDA and NDT. The US national championships include teams from former US territories and protectorates including the Panama Canal Zone, American Samoa and Guam.

Other forms of debate

Online debating

With the increasing popularity and availability of the Internet to people, different opinions arise frequently. This paved the way for more formalized debating websites, typically in the form of online forums or bulletin boards. The debate style is interesting, as research and well thought out points and counterpoints are possible because of the obvious lack of time restraints (although practical time restraints usually are in effect, e.g., no more than 5 days between posts, etc.). Many people use this to strengthen their points, or drop their weaker opinions on things, many times for debate in formalized debates (such as the ones listed above) or for fun arguments with friends. The ease-of-use and friendly environments make new debaters welcome to share their opinions in many communities. Examples of online debating websites are shown in the external links.

U.S. presidential debates

Missing image
The 1976 Ford-Carter Presidential election debate

Since the 1976 general election, debates between presidential candidates have been a part of U.S. presidential campaigns. Unlike debates sponsored at the high school or collegiate level, the participants, format, and rules are not independently defined. Nevertheless, in a campaign season heavily dominated by television advertisements, talk radio, sound bites, and spin, they still offer a rare opportunity for citizens to see and hear the two major candidates side-by-side. The format of the presidential debates, though defined differently in every election, is typically more restrictive than many traditional formats, forbidding participants to ask each other questions and restricting discussion of particular topics to short time frames.

The presidential debates were initially sponsored by the League of Women Voters, though since 1988 the two major political parties have taken over the process. In 2004, the Citizens' Debate Commission was formed in the hope of establishing an independent sponsor for presidential debates, with a more voter-centric role in the definition of the participants, format, and rules.

See also

International University Debating

International High School Debating


National and notable local debate organizations

External links


International debate organizations

Other related websites

  • World Debate Website ( Information about university debating events around the globe
  • Debate Central ( Wideranging debate training website. Includes several online videos
  • Debate Outreach Network ( A resource for starting a debate team. Includes video from the Dartmouth Debate Institute
  • Conversational Terrorism ( Delay tactics and other techniques to use in debate
  • Debatepoint dot com ( Web-based debate software
  • Debatabase ( Arguments for and against a wide variety of debate topics that may arise in various debate formats and styles
  • British Debate ( Information about school and university debating in Britain
  • National Parliamentary Debate Location ( A site featuring a message board and resources for high school parliamentary

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