A concession (kuhn-SEH-shun) in literature is a point yielded to an opposing perspective during an argument. It allows a writer to acknowledge that information presented by an opponent has some amount of validity and should be considered.
Concessions show that a writer doesn’t have tunnel vision when it comes to their subject; instead, they possess a well-rounded, mature perspective that considers other viewpoints. At the same time, a concession doesn’t mean the opponent’s entire argument is correct. It only denotes that one point is legitimate, while the rest of the argument remains faulty or weak.
The word concession comes from the Latin concedere, meaning “to give way.”
Where Concessions Are Used
Concessions are common features of argumentative writing. Essays, academic papers, and other nonfiction writing employ concessions so the reader has a better idea of the dissenting view and the author’s willingness to consider alternative positions. The author will typically grant a concession and immediately qualify it with a but or yet.
Take this excerpt from a 1901 essay by Mark Twain, in which he writes about the government’s decision to fly the American flag during the Philippine-American War:
I was not properly reared, and had the illusion that a flag was a thing which must be sacredly guarded against shameful uses and unclean contacts, lest it suffer pollution; and so when it was sent out to the Philippines to float over a wanton war and a robbing expedition I supposed it was polluted, and in an ignorant moment I said so. But I stand corrected. I concede and acknowledge that it was only the government that sent it on such an errand that was polluted. Let us compromise on that. I am glad to have it that way. For our flag could not well stand pollution, never having been used to it, but it is different with the administration.
Using but in the final sentence lets Twain concede that those who disagree with him are correct that the flag itself is not polluted or even intrinsically pollutable—though the presidential administration at the time is both. Thanks to his concession, Twain can admit to his prior error while making a larger statement about political corruption—and exercise his trademark wit.
Concessions appear in fiction, poetry, and plays as well. They make for compelling storytelling devices that often reveal truths about the character or speaker or the work itself. Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie opens with Tom making a concession:
Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.
Tom freely admits the will contain illusion while confessing—with the word but—that he is no magician and no dishonesty will occur. The illusion, he says, will only amplify the truth it conceals.
Concessions in Politics and Rhetoric
The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here.
Lincoln conceded that the world may forget his words, but it will always remember the sacrifices of the soldiers who gave up their lives.
A concession speech is a slightly different type of concession. It is a public speech in which a losing candidate yields to a winning candidate after the results of a vote are determined or, at least, foreseeable given the current vote count. This is from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 concession speech:
I know how disappointed you feel because I feel it too, and so do tens of millions of Americans who invested their hopes and dreams in this effort. This is painful and it will be for a long time, but I want you to remember this. Our campaign was never about one person or even one election, it was about the country we love and about building an America that’s hopeful, inclusive and big-hearted.
Clinton acknowledges that her loss is a personally painful event for many people but that her campaign always had a larger focus on a more united and compassionate America. By doing this, she reminds listeners to continue the hard work of progress and not get bogged down in personal defeat.
These speeches, however, may not include individual concessions at all. The overall speech itself is the concession: the forfeiting of the race and the recognition of the winner.
Concessions vs Rebuttals
Concessions are not rebuttals. Concessions affirm and agree with someone else’s argument, while rebuttals directly challenge someone else’s argument. Put another way, concessions are allowances, while rebuttals are counterarguments. A concession admits that an opposing side has a valid point, and a rebuttal sets out to prove that the opposing side’s point is not valid.
The Function of Concessions
A concession’s primary function is to show common ground between two opposing ideas. In a debate or a written work on a particularly contentious topic, a concession demonstrates a fair approach to the subject—one that isn’t so fanatical that it’s illogical or absurd.
There is also a tactical component involved in concessions. The writer or speaker’s use of concessions paints them as a level-headed, reasonable person who can hear different sides of an issue. This will often make the audience take them more seriously and be more open to what they have to say.
Further Resources on Concessions
The Odegaard Writing & Research Center at the University of Washington delves into concessions and counterarguments in academic writing.
Business Insider has a list of the 10 most memorable concession speeches in United States history.
Dr. Matt Kuefler offers insights into writing concession paragraphs and where you should place them within an essay.