1NC — Topicality

Introducing Topicality

Topicality arguments are procedural arguments that question the very legitimacy of affirmative advocacy in the first place.

Topicality arguments claim that the plan presented by the affirmative does not fit within the bounds of the resolution.  For example, if the affirmative adds a new protection, rather than strengthening an existing one, it is s arguably non-topicality.

To win that the affirmative is not-topical, they have to prove that the affirmative does not meet one or more of the terms of the resolution as defined/interpreted by the affirmative.

Most affirmative teams will claim that they do fit with an interpretation of the resolution (“we increase the total amount of protected intellectual property”).  

It is generally wise to always present a topicality argument in the 1NC.  

First, teams may simply be prepared to answer it, and if they are you will win even if you lose every other argument in the debate.  

Second, if find after the 2AC that you are unlikely to defeat the affirmative with the substance of the arguments you have introduced, you can always extend topicality.  

Third, it is a no-risk argument. The affirmative can’t “turn” it. If they prove that they are topical, the debate simply moves on from there. The affirmative can’t win just because they are topicality

Structure of Topicality Arguments

A negative topicality argument has three parts.

Definition/interpretation.  The first part of the topicality argument is the definition or interpretation.  To continue with the example above, the negative may define “strengthen” to increase an existing protection.

Violation. This second part of the topicality argument is simple –they will argue that the affirmative’s plan is inconsistent with their interpretation of the topic — that the affirmative creates a new protection, that it does not ‘”strengthen” an existing protection.

Standards.  This is the more complicated part of the topicality violation, but it really should not be that confusing.  In the standards section, the negative outlines reasons why their interpretation of the word(s) in the resolution is the one that the judge should accept when evaluating the debate.  Negative teams can create their own standards, but the following are popular ones:

Limits.  Negatives will argue that words should be given limited meanings in order to limit the potential size of the topic. Topics that are interpreted too broadly make it very difficult for the negative to prepare. In this case, only allowing the affirmative to strengthen existing protections creates a finite set of arguments.

Bright-lines.  Negatives will argue that there should be clear meanings behind terms and that there should be a clear dividing line between topical and non-topical cases.

Voting issue. In this part of the argument, debaters will argue that the affirmative should lose if they are non-topical.  Topicality is generally accepted as a voting issue, so this does not require a lot of in-depth work, but negative should make arguments such as, “Topicality is a voting issue. If it were not, affirmatives could argue for almost anything, making it very hard for us to prepare.  And they could argue things that aren’t controversial, such as 2+2=4, essentially rigging the debate in favor of the affirmative.”

Topicality arguments should always be presented in the 1NC as an off-case position.  Since you are only likely reading one short piece of evidence when making topicality arguments, it makes sense to slow down when presenting the topicality arguments so that the judge clearly understands it.

Sample topicality argument

Other Forms of Topicality Arguments

Effects topicality.  Effects topicality argues that the affirmative cannot be topical as a result of a series of steps. For example, it would not be topical to claim to increase IP protections as a result of signing a human rights treaty.

Extra topicality.  Affirmative plans may be basically topical but may also include elements that go beyond the resolution.  For example, affirmative teams cannot protect IP and give money to industry.

There is considerable debate as to whether extra-topicality should be a voting issue.  Many argue it should not be a voting issue because the affirmative could simply just severe the non-topical part of the plan and continue defending the rest of the topical action.  Others argue that it should be a voting issue because if it isn’t it will just encourage the affirmative to write frivolous things into their plan to force the negative to spend time on extra-topicality.  Also, if the negative is going to win the argument, they usually need to invest a significant amount of time in it. That time commitment means they have less time to spend on other substantive issues that they’ll need to win the debate on if the affirmative is simply allowed to advocate the topical portions of their plan.

Topicality in the 2NR

Some judges believe that you should only go for topicality in the 2NR if you extend it since it is an or nothing issue.  They think that you are not taking topicality “seriously” if you choose to extend other arguments or they will say that you have not spent enough time on it.  

Generally, I do not think this is a great way to judge topicality debates. As with any arguments, the amount of time you invest in it should be the amount of time that it takes to win it. If you can win the argument in thirty seconds, the judge should vote on it.

That said, however, I do not judge every topicality debate and you should consider this when deciding whether and how to extend topicality in the negative block.  


It is obviously important the affirmative’s advocacy be limited to what the resolution can realistically be taken to mean that affirmative should lose if their advocacy is not limited to the resolution.

Since topicality is an absolute burden, however, it has spawned the spread of topicality as a strategic weapon for the negative where they aim to think of every potential way the affirmative may violate the resolution. Sometimes this produces relatively trivial debate, but given the absolutist nature, it is debate that the affirmative must be prepared for.