Structure of a Shell

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Theory is a useful tool for checking back against abusive practices in the debate round. All theory shells are split into the following four parts: the interpretation, violation, standards and voters. If Debater is abusive and Debater wants to read theory in response to the abuse, Debater will propose a rule for the debate round that if followed, such abuse would not occur. You could think of such as rule as a proposed law for debate, and this rule is called the interpretation. Next, Debater will explicitly show how Debater has violated that rule in the form of the violation. Then, Debater will advocate for why their rule is a good norm for the debate space through the standards. Finally, Debater will explain why we should care about concepts like being fair and educational in debate through the voters.

That is all there is to a theory shell, and in the following sections, we will go more in-depth to the specific parts of the shell.

Structure of a Shell

Interpretation and Violation

The interpretation ("interp") is the proposed rule, or norm, that the debate space should follow. For example, if a debater wanted to criticize the use of conditional advocacies in the round, they might read an interpretation of, "Interpretation: Debaters must not run conditional advocacies."

The violation, then, would explicitly show how their opponent failed to abide by that norm or rule. Violations are reasons why your opponent fails to meet your interp. A violation could be as simple as, "Violation: advocacy is conditional." When constructing a violation, make sure that it is specific and clear, otherwise your opponent might be able to argue that they are not actually violating your shell. A good way to check violations would be to ask about them in cross-ex and get your opponent to explicitly admit that they are violating your shell.


Standards are reasons why your model of debate (the interpretation) is good and why their model (the violation) is bad, typically justified by fairness and/or education.

When constructing standards, you usually want to point out why their model of debate is bad – why their type of argument is bad for debate. It’s not enough to say that it’s difficult to respond to their argument; you need to more specifically explain why their argument makes the round unfair or uneducational.

For example, a standard that says, “Conditional advocacies are unfair because I don’t have any responses to their argument” would not be persuasive because it doesn't explain why you cannot respond to their argument. In contrast, a standard that says, “Conditional advocacies are unfair because they can read multiple conditional advocacies in the 1NC, and I cannot predict what they will collapse to in the 2NR, which makes my 1AR difficult" would be more persuasive.

Common Standards

Debaters commonly use the following standards to describe the ways their opponents are being unfair or uneducational.

Ground – Ground is the type and quantity of arguments that you have access to. A topic that said “Racism is unjust” would have a lot of ground (arguments) for those affirming, for example, but no ground at all for those negating. Typically, ground is used to justify dropping arguments that have little to no legitimate responses against them, which make them hard to respond to. A common argument against PICs is that they leave the aff no ground since it is difficult for the affirmative to turn the PIC since they include most of the affirmative's own offense.

Reciprocity – Reciprocity is the argument that your opponent has access to some argument, or route to the ballot, that you lack. It is similar to ground insofar as it is about the division of arguments. An irreciprocal practice, for example, would be allowing yourself to run theory but at the same time preventing your opponent from running it. That way, you would have one more route than your opponent would.

Strat/Time Skew – Strat and time skew state that something your opponent did prevented you from answering or gave them a time advantage. If someone were to take ten minutes of prep instead of the usual four/five, then it would create a time skew imbalance because they would have more time to prepare than you.

Limits – Limits is an argument concerning the number of positions that your opponent is able to run. The practice of reading non-topical affirmatives, for example, would be bad under limits because the negative would then have to prepare against an infinite number of potential affirmatives that could be read since they are not held to defending the resolution.

Predictability – Predictability criticizes how a certain practice is difficult for one debater since it is difficult to predict what their opponent will do. It is commonly used with limits to criticize narrow plan affs since they can pick tiny areas of literature to create their affs.

Clash – Clash is an education-based standard that argues a certain practice decreases the amount of interaction that can occur between arguments in the round. A tactic that relied on hiding arguments in case and not disclosing them would avoid clash since it would prevent people from discussing and debating (“clashing with”) those arguments. Clash can be split up into two types: breadth and depth. Breadth is about debating a large variety of arguments while depth is about closely debating one argument. Breadth and depth are also sometimes used to justify Limits.

Critical Thinking – Critical thinking is an education-based standard that argues a certain practice fails to cultivate critical thinking, or the ability for somebody to think on their feet. This is typically used to justify abuse from other skews like Strat/Time Skew. For example, a debater might make a turn to a strat skew standard by saying, the fact that my position is more difficult to respond to means it promotes critical thinking since debaters will have to think of more creative and original responses, which benefits them in the long term.

Real World – Real world education says that an argument is good if it models the real world because it can promote education about real-world issues. For example, arguing for multiple different advocacies could be real world since policymakers propose many different types of bills.

Phil ed/Topic ed – Phil and topic education state that an argument is bad if it reduces the amount of education someone can get on the philosophical or topical level. For example, an argument that said that your opponent shouldn’t be allowed to contest your framework would be bad for phil ed since there would be no debate on the philosophical level.

Accessibility – Accessibility states that an argument that your opponent makes excludes people from the debate space. Making violent (sexist, racist, etc.) arguments would be bad for accessibility because they would push people out of debate.

Shiftiness – Shiftiness is when people can be purposefully unclear about their stance on something in order to shift out of their original position to gain a strategic advantage. An example of shiftiness is lying in cross-ex or being intentionally vague of something.

Voters/Paradigm Issues

Voters explain how the theory shell should be evaluated. These are also known as paradigm issues. If you are reading theory, you must justify your voters at the end of the shell. Typically, this will be drop the debater, competing interpretations, no RVIs, and fairness or education.

If you are responding to theory, you might contest the voters of the shell by going for either drop the argument, reasonability, or RVIs. See the Responding to Theory page for more detail.

Drop the Debater vs Drop the Argument

Consider the question: If you win your shell, how should the impact the evaluation of the round?

Drop the debater says that your opponent should lose the round for violating your interp. This does not mean that the round completely stops after you make the accusation; rather, your opponent will defend their norm and you will pursue your norm (assuming that you go for theory) and if you win your shell and that your opponent should lose for violating it, the judge will use that to make their decision (once the round finishes).

Drop the argument says that your opponent and judge should disregard the argument that you are indicting and effectively “drop” it. For example, if my opponent were to run theory on a counterplan and it was drop the argument, if I conceded the theory argument then I would no longer be able to go for the counterplan since it would be dropped.

Typically, people who are running shells will want to say it’s drop the debater so that they can have a strategic route to the ballot, while people who are answering shells will want to say that it’s drop the argument so they don’t lose on theory.

Common Justifications

Drop the debater (often abbreviated to DTD) – their abuse was so bad that it completely skewed the rest of the round.

DTD – if they lose, it’ll encourage good norms in the future since people will fear punishment.

DTD – there isn’t enough time for me to run theory and go for other arguments – by reporting abuse my time is skewed, and DTD compensates for it.

Drop the argument (often abbreviated to DTA) – it’s the most real-world since you wouldn’t give the death penalty to someone for shoplifting just like how you shouldn’t punish me for marginal abuse.

DTA – DTD encourages frivolous theory since people can lose the round on minor abuses. Frivolous theory is bad – it delegitimizes real abuse and distracts from substance since nobody will want to go for case.

DTA – DTD incentivizes people to go all out on theory because nothing else matters so we never talk about substance.

Competing Interps vs Reasonability

Competing interpretations (often shortened to competing interps or CI) and reasonability are the two ways how the judge should evaluate the theory debate.

Under competing interps, theory arguments are evaluated under an offense-defense paradigm. The side running the shell must prove that their proposed interpretation is a better norm for debate, and the side responding to the shell must prove that their counter-norm (the violation) is a better norm for debate. This necessitates that the person responding to theory develop a counter-interpretation and counter-standards to offensively argue why their own practice is good for the debate space. The structure of this counter-shell looks identical to the structure of a normal shell, except that it is directly responsive to the interpretation. Under competing interps, the winner of the theory debate is whoever’s norm is best for the round.

Under reasonability, the person responding to theory simply needs to argue that their practice was "reasonable." In other words, it might be marginally abusive, but it's still a reasonable thing to do in the debate round and should be an allowed argument. If the person responding to theory wins that their practice was reasonable, the shell would be dropped. Often, however, it becomes difficult to decide what makes a practice "reasonable." Therefore, people reading reasonability typically propose a "brightline," which is essentially a threshold of abuse that would need to be exceeded in order for an argument to be considered truly abusive. With a reasonability brightline, the judge no longer has to arbitrarily decide whether one debater's practice is reasonable, but they can see if it is within the brightline. Some examples of reasonability brightlines include “reasonability with a brightline of sufficient defense,” “reasonability with a brightline of link and impact turn ground,” and “reasonability if the education lost on substance outweighs the abuse rectified by voting on the shell.” It is important to note that under competing interps, a brightline is not needed.

Reasonability can be especially strategic when your opponent reads a frivolous shell that is hard to generate offense against; in other words, it is hard to come up with a proactive reason why your practice is good, even if it is barely abusive. For instance, consider the shell, “Interp: Debaters must not wear formal clothing.” The standards for that shell are that formal clothing affects judgement and is inaccessible to less-privileged debaters. However, it’s obvious that this shell is frivolous – it’s impossible to find a clear distinction between “formal” and “informal” clothing and at some tournaments formal clothing is expected. Under competing interps, the debater who wore formal clothing would actively have to prove an offensive reason why wearing formal clothing (a reason why you are good for the debate round = offense, while a reason why you shouldn’t lose for not meeting their norm = defense) is good. Under reasonability, however, the burden is less severe – all the defending debater must do is prove that it is okay to wear formal clothing, that the theory shell would sacrifice more debate than it would help, or any other form of a brightline. For example, under the brightline “reasonability with a brightline of sufficient defense,” valid arguments would include “formal clothing is expected,” “I can’t know what formal is,” amongst others. If the judge uses competing interps, the winner of the theory debate will be who has proved that formal clothing is good or bad. If the judge uses reasonability, the winner of the theory debate will be whether the defending debater meets the brightline they set and if that brightline is good.

The person running a shell usually wants to defend competing interps – forcing your opponent to prove that they are actively good is much harder than proving that they are sufficient enough for the round. Likewise, the person defending the shell usually wants to defend reasonability. With the earlier example of formal clothes theory, it is easy to prove that wearing formal clothing is “okay” for a round, but it is hard to prove that it is a good norm to set. For those running theory, it is important to put competing interps in the speech you are introducing the shell – it helps preempt responses to it while also preventing the round from being late-breaking. Giving the judge multiple speeches to evaluate the debate makes it easier to evaluate compared to each debater having one speech on the issue since it gives rise to new arguments and intervention. Like with competing interps/reasonability, it is important to preemptively put no RVIs in your voters section when running theory to make it harder for your opponent to justify yes RVIs.

Common Justifications

Competing Interps – Norms setting: it ensures we have a debate over which practice is better for the debate space as a whole rather than this round in particular. Norms setting outweighs A. longevity – it ensures the most amount of debate rounds will be fair and educational, not only this one B. the constitutive purpose of theory is to set good rules for the debate space.

Competing Interps – Reasonability is self-serving because you will always choose a brightline to prove you are reasonable which means you can never be held accountable for abuse. That outweighs and justifies infinite abuse.

Competing Interps – Reasonability collapses: debating what the brightline ought to be is debating over degrees of abuse which concedes to the validity of a competing interps model.

Competing Interps – Reciprocity: competing interps ensures that the opponent can derive offense on the theory level rather than a defensive model which would be much harder to win, key to fairness.

Reasonability – Education: if I’ve proven my practices are reasonable, then it means no abuse has been committed so we should drop down to the substance.

Reasonability – Infinite regress: there are an infinite amount of ways I could be marginally fairer, but the disad to reading theory and losing out on all substance education outweighs the marginal increase in fairness you might get out of a competing interps model.

Reasonability – Collapses: proving I’m reasonable means I wasn’t unfair which functions as terminal defense to their standards under a competing interps model.

Reasonability – Competing interps fails to set norms, it just shows who the best theory debater is contextually to this round and this judge. Reasonability solves – it rewards the winner who does the best job articulating they weren’t unfair in this round.

RVIs vs No RVIs

Consider the question: Under a competing interpretations model, what should happen if the person responding to theory wins that their norm is better?

The RVI, which stands for a reverse voting issue, says that offensively beating back a theory shell (assuming competing interpretations and drop the debater are true) means that the winner should win the theory layer on the flow, which if the highest layer, would translate into winning the round. Without the RVI, beating back the shell would simply return the debate back to substance.

Usually, theory functions in a way where the person who runs theory can win the round off that argument, but the person who defends against theory cannot win the round off that argument. Responding to conditionality bad and winning it, for example, does not mean that you win – it means that you are allowed to run your conditional advocacy. This is under the no RVIs model. However, granting or winning that you get an RVI means that proving that your norm is best means that you can win the round of theory. With the earlier example, winning that conditional advocacies are good means that you can get a route to the ballot using theory.

Usually, the person running theory will not want RVIs because then they will have to either defend the shell or prove their opponent doesn’t get RVIs instead of just kicking, while the person responding to theory may want to run RVIs if they want an extra route to the ballot.

Common Justifications

RVIs – Reciprocity: otherwise theory comes a NIB and impossible for me to win, which justifies them reading many shells since I do not have recourse.

RVIs – Substance skew: I can’t return to the substance debate because I’m already behind by spending time on the theory flow, which kills fairness.

RVIs – Norms setting: RVIs encourage people to only read good theory shells that have defensible norms, not just for a time suck, since there is the risk of losing. Norms setting outweighs A. longevity – it ensures the most amount of debate rounds will be fair and educational, not only this one B. the constitutive purpose of theory is to set good rules for the debate space.

No RVIs – Winning the counterinterp proves you weren’t abusive on substance, so you should attempt to engage substantively instead of continuing the theory debate.

No RVIs – Logic: You should lose for being unfair but not win for proving you weren’t unfair, just as you wouldn’t get a 100 on a test for proving you did not cheat

No RVIs – RVIs encourage abusive practices A. they encourage people to read abusive affs to bait theory and win on the RVI b. they disincentivize people from reading theory for fear of losing on the RVI which allows abusive practices to go unchecked

Impact Calculus (Fairness, Education, etc.)

In the impact calculus section, you justify why your impacts (of the standards you read) matter. If you say that the debate is unfair, why does the debate being unfair matter? It may seem intuitive, but when running theory, you need to justify this too.

The two most common justifications are fairness and education. Fairness says that something that your opponent did skewed the round and made it hard to debate, while education says that something that your opponent did prevented you from having a discussion or gaining education about debate. There are other forms of impact calc like accessibility (how safe your practices are) and tailored impact calc like disabled fairness or race-specific fairness, but those are less common. In topicality, semantics (how grammatically correct you are to the resolution) can also be part of impact calc, although it can also be used as a standard as well.

Common Justifications

Fairness – All argumentation presupposes fairness that the judge won’t hack for either side.

Fairness – Judges cannot objectively evaluate the round if it’s skewed by fairness

Fairness – Key to making sure debaters don’t quit the debate space because it’s unfair.

Education – Schools fund the debate because it is an educational activity, so if we were not educational, we couldn’t debate

Education – We take away educational benefits out of debate to use later in life which outweighs on real world usage.

Norms Setting vs In-Round Abuse

The distinction between norms setting and in-round abuse is a more technical part of the theory debate which is not brought up in most theory rounds, but it is worth mentioning here because it can still be very strategic in certain cases. Note that the distinction between norms setting and in-round abuse is only relevant under a competing interps model of theory.

The norm-setting model of theory argues that the purpose of theory debates are to set good norms across all rounds, whereas the in-round abuse model of theory argues that the purpose of theory is to mitigate abuse in this round, specifically. In debate, many judges and debaters seem to assume that theory operates under a norms setting model, but this is certainly up to contestation.

The main relevance of the distinction is that under a norms-setting model, you are solely arguing over whether the interpretation is a good norm for the debate or not. All of the other aspects of the round become irrelevant. Under an in-rounds abuse model, in contrast, you are arguing whether the violation was abusive in the context of this round specifically.

For example, suppose that the affirmative reads "Interpretation: Debaters must not read a Prioris." The negative stands up and replies "You responded to my a Priori, so there was no risk of it being abusive in this round." Clearly, this response would not be acceptable under a norm-setting model of debate, because the affirmative is arguing that the norm of reading a Prioris is bad, irrespective of whatever else happened in this round.

Generally speaking, therefore, the person reading the theory shell will want to advocate for a norm-setting model of debate, and the person responding to theory might benefit from an in-round abuse model of debate.

Common Justifications

IRA – Context: Abuse will always be contextual to different situations, so we can never have a unified understanding of a norm. View abuse through a case-by-case basis.

IRA –Theory recourse: It justifies frivolous theory shells when I’ve not done anything abusive in this round specifically. Force them to prove why I was abusive in this round – anything else justifies a horrible norm for theory debates.

IRA – Norms setting collapses as the purpose of norms setting is to mitigate in-round abuse just for all rounds

IRA – Norms setting fails. A. Empirically disproven since tricks are still prevalent on the circuit – shows theory fails to enact real change B. Norms are controlled by judge preferences, not debaters, since not all debaters will run theory.  C. Everyone has their own conception over what constitutes a good norm and is defensible

Norms Setting – Longevity: setting the best norms for debate space ensures all rounds will be fair, not only this particular one, which outweighs.

Norms Setting – Logic: the intrinsic purpose of theory is to set good norms; that is why we defend two different models through competing interps.

Norms Setting – Collapses: defending a model of in round abuse concedes to the validity that it is a good norm and that norms setting matters

Norms Setting – Models: theory is a question of models of debate, so even if you prove why your abuse isn’t significant here, if we win why it’s bad for the debate space as a whole, that justifies dropping them to stop the proliferation.

Paragraph Theory

Theory shells are sometimes ran in the form of paragraph theory. While functionally identical to normal theory, paragraph theory often condenses the structure of a shell into one paragraph and makes it faster to run, especially useful for the 1AR.

Sample Shells

Below are a couple sample shells; they have red text explaining the different parts of the shell as outlined in the sections below this.

(CD) Condo Bad Example

(CD) Agential Interps Example