On necessity (Key terms: necessary / unnecessary)

6 07 2011

A common problem with essays on necessity is that they devolve into a “good vs bad” or a “benefits vs detrimental effects” sort of argument.

Consider this question:

Advertising is unnecessary. Comment.

[Key term: Unnecessary]

A common mistake is to talk about the problems of advertisements/advertising. For example, “Advertising is unnecessary because it often exaggerates information” or “Advertising is unnecessary because it encourages people to buy products they do not need”. Here, it is important to note that “unnecessary” is not the same as “bad” [see note (1) for further explanation]

However, the fact that something is bad could further develop an argument on necessity:

“Advertising is unnecessary because it is a waste of money, given that the information being advertised can be obtained quite easily from other sources

The important thing to note is that “unnecessary” must be proven (see text in italics above), and the fact that it is also bad highlights how it is “especially unnecessary”.

All the above arguments rely on one assumption though – that the purpose (here, providing information) is, in itself, important. If one could prove that the very purpose is not important, that would also show that something is unnecessary: “Advertising is unnecessary because no one actually needs to know about the products being advertised”. This argument probably won’t work in this case (for it is difficult to prove that having information is not important). But in other cases, it could be relevant. [see note (2) for further explanation]

Tip for addressing “unnecessary”:

Ask yourself, is a purpose being achieved?  If there’s no purpose, or if the intended purpose isn’t being achieved, one might argue that something is unnecessary. Alternatively, if the purpose itself is not important, one might argue that something is unnecessary.

But does this then mean that achieving a purpose makes something necessary? [Key term: Necessary]

For example,

“Advertising is necessary because it provides people with information” or “Advertising is necessary because it encourages consumption which drives the economy”.

Although this does consider that a purpose is being achieved, the concept of necessity is stronger than that. To show a better appreciation of what the term means, you might say,

“Advertising is necessary because it provides people with information in a way that other sources of information cannot match” or “Advertising is necessary because it encourages consumption which is a significant and important component of economic growth”.

Tip for addressing “necessary”:

To prove the necessity of something, you could show that not only does it serve a purpose, but it serves either a unique or important purpose, or that it serves its purpose best. In other words, there are no viable alternatives.


To prove that something is unnecessary:

  • The intended purpose/s is/are not being achieved
  • There are alternatives that can achieve the exact same purpose
  • The purpose itself is not important / useless
To prove that something is necessary:
  • It serves a unique purpose (there are no viable alternatives)
  • It serves its purpose best / better than alternatives (there are no viable alternatives)
[UPDATE: 7/8/11]
From 2002-2010, Cambridge has never asked a question with the key terms “necessary” or “unnecessary”. However, they are extremely important key terms to understand because the idea of “necessity” comes up in a number of other essays, with key terms that Cambridge has asked (which are common enough), such as importance, purpose and place. In addition, the argument “…because it is necessary” is a relatively common argument that can be used in a number of essays that do not mention necessity (in any form) in the question)
Remember, just because the exact terms you are familiar with (here, “necessary” and “unnecessary”) do not occur in a question, this does not make the skill behind the key term irrelevant. Always develop a sensitivity to the links between different key terms; transfer the skills learnt from one question to another and avoid compartmentalising your knowledge.


(1) Understanding ideas through analogies: If you struggle with these ideas, you could try using simple analogies to help you understand them better. For example, I might argue that chocolate is bad for my health because it gives me a sore throat. But if I derive extreme satisfaction from eating chocolate, I might still say it is necessary. Because of this, saying that “chocolate is unnecessary because it gives me a sore throat” doesn’t make sense. Again, “unnecessary” isn’t the same as “bad”.

(2) Although eating chocolate gives me great satisfaction (serves a unique purpose), it is not important that I have great satisfaction in my life (purpose itself is not important) . Thus, eating chocolate is unnecessary.




4 responses

3 11 2011
[Recap] Key term: Necessary « read, think, write.

[…] the same arguments for “necessity” could be used. Questions where you could use “necessity” arguments: How important is a sense of history in shaping the future of Singapore’s society? […]

25 02 2012
Rion ang

Hi Miss DeSouza, I teach in MI and I too have the same tips for my own kids! 🙂 so glad to see I am not the only one teaching this! 🙂
I have another tip for them and that is you can argue how there can be better alternatives that can replace the topic. For e.g, a family’s purpose of providing emotional and social support for youth, you can argue that the family is no longer necessary as other alternatives like friends etc can meet these purposes better.

Would love your thoughts on this 🙂

Ang wee ngee

25 02 2012
Adrienne de Souza

Hi Wee Ngee

Thanks for your comment – I always find it useful to hear from other teachers, especially those I don’t usually interact with 🙂

I agree completely, and I too, encourage that approach for the “unnecessary” stand! 🙂 In fact, I’d argue that alternatives don’t even have to be “better” at achieving a given purpose – as long as they’re “as good as”, you can say it’s no longer necessary. However, the latter stand is harder to execute, and the former (arguing “better”) makes for a stronger case, I think.

I actually have a post on this concept of “alternatives are better”, I believe. Can’t pull up the link now though – hard to search using my phone!

Sent from my iPhone

25 02 2012
Adrienne de Souza

Found the links! Not a full post on “alternatives” as I had initially thought though.

Here’s one post that mentions “alternatives”:


Here’s another that makes a brief mention of “alternatives”:


Sent from my iPhone

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