Responding to Theory

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Theory is one of the most technical styles of debate, and as such, learning how to respond can be difficult at first. Luckily, getting proficient at responding to theory is achievable for anyone who has a proper understanding of how theory operates and sufficient time to drill answering various shells. In this section, we will lay out the structure of responding to a theory shell.

Of the following sections, it is most important that you form a counter-interpretation, counter-standards, and respond to your opponent's standards. Beyond that, your choice to deflate theory or weigh it against other layers are more contextual to the round. You are recommended to follow the structure in the order that it is presented on this page.

Formulating a Counter-Interpretation


Theory shells will almost always be initiated with competing interpretations. Under this model, the debater who initiates theory provides an interpretation which states the norm that they are defending (e.g. debaters must not read conditional advocacies), supported by standards which argue why that norm is good. The debater responding to theory is expected to provide a counter-interpretation which states the alternative norm that they are defending (e.g. debaters can read conditional advocacies), supported by counter-standards which argue why that alternative norm is good.

Choosing a Counter-Interpretation

First, you must choose a counter-interpretation. The counter-interpretation will often, but not necessarily, be the opposite of the interpretation that is read, because if the interpretation is arguing that is bad, the counter-interpretation should argue that is actually good. Most importantly, the violation must be allowed under the world of the counter-interpretation because the debater responding to theory needs to argue why their violation should be permitted.

Sometimes, it can be strategic the read a counter-interpretation that is not explicitly the opposite of the interpretation. For example, if the interpretation reads, "debaters must not read conditional advocacies," a viable counter-interpretation might be "debaters can read at most one conditional advocacy." Notice that the counter-interpretation is not the exact opposite of the interpretation, but if the violation was that the negative only read one conditional advocacy, this violation would be permitted under the world of the counter-interpretation. Such a counter-interpretation could be strategic because allows the negative to avoid defending that conditionality is good no matter what. That is, if the counter-interpretation was simply, "debaters can read conditional advocacies," the negative would have to defend that the practice of reading ten conditional advocacies is good, which is certainly harder than defending that the practice of reading one conditional advocacy is good. As a general rule of thumb, the more specific you can make your counter-interpretation to the abuse committed in the round, the better, because it reduces the scope of the abuse that you need to defend.

Forming Counter-Standards

After you have a counter-interpretation, you must choose counter-standards that support why your counter-interpretation is a good norm. Importantly, you counter-standards must be offensive reasons why your counter-interpretation is desirable, not defensive reasons why the interpretation itself is bad. That is, if the interpretation is, "debaters must not read conditional advocacies," and your counter-interpretation is "debaters can read conditional advocacies," your counter-standards would need to be proactive reasons why conditionality is good for debate.

The counter-standards are typically drawn from the same list of common standards. Being able to generate counter-standards on-the-fly can seem difficult at first, but it is a skill that will come with practice. Certain theory shells are also commonly read (e.g. topicality, conditionality bad, PICs bad), and many debaters have blocks with prepared counter-standards to make this process easier.

Finally, it is of vital importance to weigh your counter-standards against your opponent's standards. You should be giving specific reasons why your counter-standards outweigh your opponent's standards, especially when you are collapsing to your shell, otherwise there is no way for the judge to objectively determine who is ahead on the flow. This weighing would take the form of arguments like "ground outweighs clash because of ," or "limits comes before predictability because of ."


In some situations, you might choose to go for the RVI, or reverse voting issue, when answering theory. Without the RVI, winning the shell under competing-interpretations would simply return the debate back to substance, or the next lowest layer, as you have proven that you were not unfair. Sometimes, depending on the round and you judge, it could be strategic to go for the RVI so that winning the counter-interpretation could provide an additional route to the ballot.

Choosing whether to go for the RVI is a strategic decision. Firstly, you need to make sure that your judge is willing to vote on the RVI. Most judges would specify on their paradigm if they are unwilling to do so, but generally speaking, policy judges on the West Coast would be less inclined to vote on the RVI than an East Coast judge. Secondly, you should only go for the RVI if you are confident that you are sufficiently ahead on the theory flow. After all, there is no point in investing the time to win the RVI if you ultimately lose your counter-interpretation anyway. Thirdly, you should consider what other layers and arguments are relevant on the flow. If you are sufficiently ahead on substance, for example, it might not be worth spending the time on the RVI, as you could split your speech and lose your substantive advantage. On the other hand, if it is clear that you need an additional out, the RVI might seem to be a viable option.

If your opponent is reading a silly theory shell that has an easy counter-interpretation (e.g. "debaters must not negate"), you might as well take the opportunity to go for the RVI since winning the shell should be a no-risk issue for you.

Responding to the Interpretation


After choosing a counter-interpretation and counter-standards, you will need to respond to your opponent's actual interpretation and standards. There are largely two reasons to do so. Firstly, you can place defense on your opponent's standards, and since you have offense derived from your own counter-standards, this can help turn the debate in your favor. Secondly, you can turn your opponent's standards to provide an additional source of offense.

Contesting the Violation

If you believe that you don't violate your opponent's shell, you should read an "I-meet" argument which says that you don't violate their interpretation. It's as simple as saying, "I-meet the interpretation; I don't violate because ." Clearly, if your opponent reads a shell that you do not violate, you should read an I-meet. However, trickier debaters might also find some technical or semantical reason to make an I-meet even if they violate the shell in the true sense. For instance, if the interpretation says "the neg must not read a conditional advocacy," the negative might claim, "I-meet the shell, I am the negative, not the neg."

This tricky I-meet brings up the distinction between following the spirit of the interp or the text of the interp. Spirit of the interp claims that the judge should determine if the debater is violating the interp based on what the shell was intended to mean, even if there is some technical or semantical reason why one debater isn't technically in violation of the interp. Debaters reading theory would advocate for the spirit of the interp to be followed. Text of the interp claims that the judge should determine if the debater is violating the interp by holding true to the exact text of the interpretation; even if the debater only slightly in violation due to some technical or semantical reason, the theory shell should not apply. Debaters responding to theory by way of a tricky I-meet would advocate for the text of the interp to be followed.

Answering the Standards

Now, it is time to answer your opponent's standards. Since competing-interpretations is evaluated under an offense-defense paradigm, it is important to answer your opponent's standards so that your own counter-standards come out ahead. You should aim to make a combination of offensive and defensive responses to your opponent's standards.

You would make offensive responses in the form of turning your opponent's standards; for example, if your opponent claims that, " makes it harder for me to generate ground," you would claim that, " makes it easier for you to generate ground."

Defensive responses usually take one of two forms. You can either place defense on your opponent's specific standard, such as, " doesn't make it harder for you to generate ground," or you can make a more generic response, such as, "ground isn't a relevant standard because ."

You should aim to make a mix of offensive and defense responses to all of your opponent's standards. Having at least 2-3 responses on each of your opponent's standards is ideal, and you should aim to make offensive responses over defensive ones.

Deflating Theory


In certain situations, it might be strategic to respond to the voters of a shell to argue why you shouldn't lose the round even if your opponent wins their interpretation. This is known as "deflating" theory. In particular, it is strategic to deflate theory when you are less comfortable winning on the counter-interpretation. This might occur when your opponent is reading frivolous theory or some spec shell that is hard to generate offense against.

In most situations, even if you choose to deflate theory, it is worth making a counter-interpretation and developing some counter-standards so that you have multiple outs on the theory flow. In the worst case, you force your opponent to spend time answering your counter-standards in addition to your deflationary tactics. The only situation where you might choose to deflate theory and not read a counter-interpretation and counter-standards would be if the theory shell is so frivolous that you think there is no hope in generating any offense under your counter-standard.


Going for reasonability is a smart option when it is difficult to generate offense with a counter-interpretation. Under reasonability, you argue that that the abuse that you committed was "reasonable" enough to the point where you shouldn't lose the round, even if it was marginally unfair. In particular, you might argue your opponent's act of reading theory detracted from substantive education more than whichever abusive practice you engaged in.

Drop the Argument

Going for drop the argument is strategic when your opponent has read theory against some particular argument in your case that you are willing to drop. For instance, if your opponent reads the argument, "debaters must not read a prioris," and you are willing to concede your a priori, you could accept that a prioris are abusive, which means they should be dropped.

In-Round Abuse

Going for in-round abuse, though less common, is strategic when your opponent still could have easily won the round despite your abuse. In-round abuse advocates that the purpose of theory is solely to mitigate abuse in this round, not to set good norms across all rounds, so if you win in-round abuse, you could explain how your opponent still could have easily won the round, which is an easy way to put defense against your opponent's standards. If you're going for in-round abuse, though, it is important that you also have a fully formed counter-interpretation and counter-standards, since in-round abuse only provides you easier access to defense.



Certain debates may have multiple layers relevant at the same time. This might include multiple theory shells or various kritiks. In these debates, it is important that you weigh your layers against the theory shell and argue why your layers should come first.

Layering vs Other Shells

If you have read another theory shell in the round, it is important that you articulate why your theory shell should be evaluated before your opponent's theory shell. Typically, these reasons should be specific to the nature of the two shells. For instance, if your opponent's shell says, "the negative must not read conditional advocacies," and your shell says, "affirmative must defend the entirety of the resolution and not a subset," you should come up with top-level reasons with why reading a plan is more abusive than reading a conditional advocacy.

Other common layering arguments are side-specific. For instance, some debaters justify why 1NC theory should come before 1AR theory or vice-versa. Typically, side-specific weighing arguments aren't as persuasive, but they are still a useful tool when weighing between shells.

Layering vs Kritiks

If you are reading a kritik, it is essential that you make reasons why your role of the ballot should be evaluated before the theory shell. Typically, you will want to frame why your role of the ballot excludes theory as offense under it, so that theory would not be relevant. To do this, you might explain why your kritik is a more important issue to discuss than the theory shell, why your kritik philosophically contextualizes what it means to be fair which takes out the shell's fairness offense, or you might use your kritik to impact-turn the notion of being fair to begin with.