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Topicality is an argument that contests whether or not the affirmative has met its burden in defending the resolution. While topicality and theory are both "procedurals" because they generally supersede other "substantive" arguments, there is a distinction. In theory debates, the interpretation describes a norm that would be good for debate, and the violation proves that the other debater violated that norm. In topicality debates, both sides assume that it is a good norm for the affirmative to defend the resolution, and mainly disagree over what the best interpretation of the resolution is and whether the affirmative has differed from that interpretation.

The notable exception to this is T-Framework. For topicality against performance/non-topical affs, click here.

It is often helpful to think about T debates in the same way as policy debates. The interpretation is like a plantext, because it advocates for a deviation from the status quo. Standards explain why the interpretation is a good idea in the same way advantages explain why the plan is a good idea. Counter-interpretations mitigate offense in the same way a counterplan does, and can sometimes generate uniqueness for a net benefit (counter-standards).


All topicality shells technically amount to this argument: "Interpretation: affirmatives must defend the resolution. Violation: The affirmative did not defend the resolution."

However, a topicality argument like this would not be particularly useful because the affirmative likely agrees with you that it should defend the resolution, but disagrees with your claim that it has not defended the resolution. Because of this, it is important that topicality arguments make clear what their criteria for "topical affirmatives" are, and why the affirmative has not met that criteria. An example on the resolution "States ought to increase production of chocolate" might be:

"Interpretation: States is a plural noun. Therefore, the affirmative must defend that multiple states ought to increase production of chocolate. Violation: The affirmative has only defended increasing chocolate production in Germany."



Since topicality arguments attempt to identify the best (i.e. the most fair and educational) interpretation of the resolution, they usually require defining words in the resolution. In the chocolate example from the previous section, a definition of the word "states" that says states is a plural noun that must refer to multiple things would most likely be read in the 1NC.

Definitions are important because they help prove that a given topicality interpretation is a precise and accurate reading of the resolution. Without definitions, topicality interpretations become arbitrary and place unfair burdens on the affirmative by expecting them to interpret the resolution in a way that is not represented in the topic literature.

Semantics vs Pragmatics

While the grammatical accuracy of a given topicality interpretation is one way to determine its merit, another way is to analyze the types of debate that interpretation would produce, and determine if those debates would be fair or educational. These two types of arguments generally make up the standards of a topicality interpretation or counterinterpretation, and are referred to as semantic and pragmatic offense. "Semantics" and "Precision" are often used interchangeably to refer to arguments that seek to prove or disprove that a given topicality interpretation aligns with the grammatical meaning of the resolution in the English language. Precision can also be used to refer to whether a topicality interpretation aligns with the resolution's most common meaning in the eyes of qualified experts and the topical literature.

"Pragmatics" and "Debateability" are often used interchangeably to refer to arguments that seek to prove or disprove that a given topicality interpretation will create fair and education debates. Common examples of standards that incorporate these arguments include

  • Neg Ground (the idea that a topicality interpretation is bad because it restricts the negative's access to prep that can answer affirmatives the interpretation would make topical).
  • Limits (the idea that a topicality interpretation is bad because it drastically expands the number of possible topical affirmatives, placing and unfair prep burden on the negative)
  • Topic Literature (the idea that a topicality interpretation is bad because it excludes core parts of scholarly literature written in the context of the topic)

Paradigm Issues

When it comes to topicality, paradigm issues sometimes have more specific topicality-related warrants. Shells will have the same "drop the debater, competing interps, no RVIs, fairness and education matter" but the way these are warranted may slightly change. Some common arguments can be found below:

Drop the debater – their aff is their entire advocacy, so dropping the aff is the same thing as dropping them.

Competing interpretations – topicality is a yes/no question (either you are topical, or you are not topical, if the topic is “dogs are cute” and you are advocating for cats, you can’t say that you’re almost topical because cats and dogs are both animals), there is no way to be reasonably topical.

No RVIs – you don’t get to win for being fair, especially for just proving you’re topical. Otherwise, affs would auto-win every round just for meeting their burden.

Topicality also has some unique paradigm issues, like semantics/precision and an argument for why this theory shell comes before 1AR theory. However, semantics/pragmatics (explained above) is not a very common paradigm issue anymore given that most people run it as a standard, but the warrants for it being a paradigm issue would be the same for it being a standard.

For a shell to come before 1AR theory, that means that even if the aff runs a shell in their first aff rebuttal and wins it, if you win topicality is true, the judge should decide the debate on who won topicality before deciding who won the aff’s shell. For example, let’s say you run topicality and your opponent runs conditionality bad (condo). If you win topicality, but your opponent wins condo, the judge will give you the win because topicality comes at a higher layer. Common arguments for this can be found below:

Comes before 1AR theory – if we had to be abusive it’s because it was impossible to engage with their aff.

Comes before 1AR theory – T outweighs on scope (scope is how much something is affected) because your choice to be non-topical affected every speech after the 1AC.

Common Topicality Shells

Nebel Topicality

Nebel topicality, or "Nebel-T" is named after Jake Nebel. It makes the claim that grammatically, it is illogical for affirmatives to defend subsets of certain nouns.

Bare Plurals

A plural is more than one. For a plural to be a bare plural, it lacks a determiner. A determiner is what determines the quantity of something. This can also be known as a quantifier. An example of a determiner would be “one,” “two,” “some,” “all,” etc. Thus, the phrase “seven cats” would not be a bare plural because it has a determiner, while the phrase “cats” would be a bare plural because it has no determiner.

For some topics, whether something has a determiner is unclear. Saying “In a democracy, voting ought to be compulsory” could refer to a singular democracy or a general category of democracy. In these debates, you’ll want to provide definitions proving that the word in question (like “a”) is or is not a determiner.  

Generic vs Existential

In topicality, there are two types of bare plurals: generic and existential.

A generic bare plural refers to something plural in general. Saying that “cats have tails” is a statement referring to how cats are in general. Proving that there are a couple stumpy tail-less cats is not enough to disprove the statement “cats have tails” because that statement is true in general – tail-less cats are not tail-less because they are cats, but because they lost their tails. Generics thus allow for some exceptions. However, what does it mean to be true in general? The very sad answer is that nobody knows.

An existential bare plural refers to the existence of some of a noun – it can be affirmed even by the smallest of the number; all that needs to be proven true is for it to have more than one. For example, if I say “cats are on my table” it means that there is more than one cat on the table. Two cats, three cats, four cats, or more than one cat would all prove the statement true. Existential bare plurals have lower thresholds for what is true. Unlike generic bare plurals, existential bare plurals refer to specific things.

Determining the Difference

What is the difference between a generic bare plural and an existential bare plural?

First, the noun must be plural.

Second, you need to check if there is a determiner. To determine if something is generic, there are two tests: the upward entailment test and the adverb test.

The Upward Entailment Test

Generic bare plurals are not upward entailing, while existential bare plurals are. If something is upward entailing, the statement will remain true if we replace the subject with a more inclusive term.

For example, with the statement “cats are on my table” if you replace “cats” with “animals,” the statement “animals are on my table” would still be true. Therefore, “cats” would be an existential bare plural and not a generic one.

With the example, “birds are winged,” if you replaced “birds” with “animals,” the statement “animals are winged” is false – “birds” is a generic bare plural because it is not upward entailing.

In debate, take the resolution “Resolved: States ought to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.” If the affirmative defended a plan aff that said “Resolved: The United States ought to eliminate their nuclear arsenals,” replacing “The United States” with “States” would not yield the same truth statement. The aff may prove it true that the U.S. should eliminate their nuclear arsenals, but that is not the same as proving that states ought to eliminate their nuclear arsenals because you could conceive of states that should keep their nukes even if the U.S. gets rid of theirs. Thus, “States” is a generic bare plural and proving a subset of states (i.e., the U.S.) should get rid of their nukes does not prove the resolution and is non-topical.

The Adverb Test

The adverb test tests whether we can insert an adverb of quantification with little to no change of meaning. Generic bare plurals will “pass” this test – when you insert an adverb of quantification, their meanings will not change significantly unlike existential bare plurals. This is typically done by adding the word “usually.”

For example, saying “ravens are black” and then “ravens are usually black” doesn’t change much of the meaning. However, saying “ravens are on the tree” and then “ravens are usually on the tree” creates a larger change in meaning.

In debate, saying “Resolved: States usually ought to eliminate their nuclear arsenals” does not substantially alter the meaning of the resolution. Perhaps there could be exceptions to this statement, like a specific instance where states should not eliminate their nuclear weapons or a type of nuke that states should not eliminate, but we have proved earlier those exceptions do not disprove that a statement is generic (see generic bare plural under Generic vs Existential).  

Extra Topicality

Effects Topicality

Responding to Topicality

Responding to Nebel T