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Theory shells

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A theory shell, a type of theory argument, is employed in the activity of Lincoln-Douglas and policy debate. Theory in LD debate is all about proposing rules to abide by. As such, theory debaters argue that theory comes before substantive debate as theory helps to determine if the debate, in the first place, is skewed or even worth debating on. A theory shell seeks to do this by criticizing something the opponent did that had not followed your (the person using the shell) vision of how the debate should work. The means of how they are justified are usually in the terms of fairness and education. Theory shells are used by many competitors in the high school circuit and continue to be a popular argument used in LD and policy debate.

A theory argument consists of 4 major parts: the interpretation, violation, standards and the voter(s). A theory shell helps to organize these theory arguments into a more collective idea that can be debated upon in a round. Shells are usually organized into groups denoted by an alphabetical letter - A for the interpretation, B for the violation, etc - and are read both on/off case.


The interpretation is the first part of a theory shell. Similar to the advocacy text run on an alternate plan(counterplan); the interpretation is the statement of a particular rule that all debaters must abide by. This can tell us what we can and cannot do as well as describe how this impacts the quality of the debate (refer to fairness and education).

Solid interpretations are not too vague. Referencing a nib (necessary but insufficient burden) by saying that 'nibs are bad' is too vague and is open for easy interpretation by the opposing side. This allows for the opponent to easily contest the violations of the shell (which will be discussed later). When creating a shell you must be specific of what rule cannot be broken by highlighting what they cannot do.

Another thing to think about when creating theory shells is about being 'prescriptive and not descriptive'. A shell states what you cannot do rather than just explaining a rule. Going back to the same example with the nibs; saying that 'nibs are bad' just claims that they are bad and goes no further into what the debaters should do instead. This is especially important because debate itself is comparative meaning that even if a world with nibs is bad, it could mean that a world without them is even worse. This interpretation does not effort into describing what should be done along with offering no basis for the status quo opening the room up for interpretation. Thus, theory shells describe what a debater should do(not just a claim on if something is 'good' or 'bad'). An example interpretation for something called disclosure theory (the idea that all debaters must disclose) would be 'all Debaters must, on the page with their name and the school they attend, disclose the tag-lines, full citations, and the first and last three words of any pieces of evidence read in their case which they have read in their case in a previous round on the (NDCA) wiki at least one hour before the round'.


The next step of a shell after the interpretation is the violation. The violation is pretty straightforward; it establishes how the opponent violated or deviated from the given interpretation.

The most common method for locating and providing a violation is just to bring something up from the opponents case. If, in the negative's constructive, the neg reads that the aff must prove that it is feasible and that the we ought to take the aff action, they clearly violate the nib interpretation.

Also, another way to provide a violation is by asking them in crossfire(cx). Referencing back to disclosure theory; if you get the neg or aff to concede to not having disclosed, then you would just have to bring it up in your next speech in order to carry it across the flow. This allows for the judge to recognize the violation helps to establish a clear basis of argumentation for your case. Using direct examples and clear concessions are important to a strong shell. Some abusive debaters even manipulate the wording of the shell to get a violation from their opponent. This strategy becomes hard though when your violation is too specific.


Next, after the violations, come the standards. Providing just a rule for the debate isn't enough. They require arguments and justifications, which are essentially the standards. Just like contentions in a traditional case, the standards act as the justification for the shell. Standards themselves are divided into 3 parts:the tag, warrant and the internal link.


The tag is designed to provide a summary of the argument. Tags for standards are usually one to two words long, with common tags including “ground, predictability, reciprocity, strategy skew, topic literature, etc.” Tags are important in helping to differentiate different standards as well as helping to weigh the various impacts in the shell. In the contention analogy, the tag “Contention 1: Giving adolescents autonomous medical choices saves lives” indicates to the judge to the judge that the contention will be about protecting lives without going into the micro analysis of how that will happen. A standard tag like “ground” does the same by indicating the types or quality of the arguments you have access to improves when the interpretation is adopted, without going into the specifics of how it happens.


The warrant is the second part of a standard and basically justifies a world with or without the interpretation. For example, if you were making an argument on 'ground' you would say how your opponent gives you no ground. This, in some occasion, involves evidence and provides a look at a world that excludes the given interpretation. Impacting these claims out to fairness and education are also common as it provides reasons of why they should be considered.

Internal Link[edit]

Much like any link in debate, an internal link is the establishment of the standards(tags) to the given voters. Much of the time they are obvious - proving that not disclosing leads to 'no research' can be linked to a lack of education from the round - but it is still important to prove these links. This is because many judges won’t evaluate theory without internal links, and having good internal links helps with weighing between theory impacts when your opponent doesn’t fully develop on their own.


The final part of a theory shell are the voters. Your voter finishes up your shell; you've detailed your rule, showed how your opponent violated it and provided why it was good, but you need to justify why your judge should vote on, or even consider, your rule. The voter explains to your judge why your shell is important and most often uses both fairness and education as grounds to do so. Voters are often warranted in terms of duties that are inherent to judging or the goals of debate as an activity. There are many other voters, other than fairness and education, that are employed as voters in order to justify your shell.


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  • LD theory for beginners.<ref> Anderson, Jim. (2010). [2]. decorabilia.

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  • Lincoln-Douglas debate: An introRoberts.<ref> Josh. (2012). [3]. NSDA.

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  • An introduction to LD.<ref> Nikhil, Bhargava. (2011). [4]. google sites.

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  • Theory.<ref> Stafford, Victoria. (2017). [5].

the debate guru. Retrieved November 9,2018

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