The confusion over ‘rebut’ and ‘refute’

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Now that the “redoubtable” Brett Kavanaugh has been sworn in to the Supreme Court, let’s take another look at what he told the Senate Judiciary Committee about his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.

Here’s a segment of Kavanaugh’s testimony:

Dr. Ford’s allegation is not merely uncorroborated, it is refuted by the very people she says were there, including by a long-time friend of hers. Refuted. (Emphasis added.)

A reader and former colleague, Bruce Lambert, wrote:

Perhaps this is an apropos time to note that “refute,” as misused by Kavanaugh, does not mean “rebut” or “dispute,” as many people seem to think.

Especially in the legal world, it means “disprove” or “deny,” as any lawyer—and surely a judge—must know.

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The witnesses named by Prof. Ford did not “refute” her claim. They said they didn’t remember.

Indeed, as one CNN article said, the friend of Ford cited by Kavanuagh “does not refute the veracity of the allegation, although she does not remember the alleged incident,” her lawyer told the committee. So CNN got it right, even if the judge did not.

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We wrote about the confusion between “refute” and “rebut” eight years ago, in the context of “refudiate,” which, despite being a Word of the Year for 2010, “remains generally unacceptable in formal writing,” as dictionary.com says in its entry for the word that isn’t, really.

Our predecessor, Evan Jenkins, wrote about “rebut” and “refute” even earlier, in a column that eerily reflects current circumstances: An athlete was accused of sexual assault, and a headline said “No charges yet as teammate refutes woman’s claim.” As Jenkins noted, “‘Refute’ means to disprove, conclusively.” In that case, there “had been no finding on the truth of the charges.”

The word you want most of the time is “rebut,” a denial accompanied by argument or presentation of less-than-definitive evidence. If someone claims the sun rises in the west, simply pointing them east at dawn would “refute” that claim. But if someone claims that the Beatles were the greatest rock band the world has ever seen, it is not a provable fact, so any argument to the contrary is a “rebuttal.”

The confusion over “rebut” and “refute” is more than a century old, as we wrote, and though the difference is significant, the needle is starting to move. Merriam-Webster’s second definition for “refute” is “to deny the truth or accuracy of,” and its definition of “rebut” includes “to expose the falsity of: refute.” It treats the two words as all but synonyms. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the one preferred by many news organizations, comes close as well:
It defines “rebut” as “to contradict, refute, or oppose, esp. in a formal manner by argument, proof, etc.,” and its “refute” definition includes “to deny the truth or validity of: usage objected to by some.”

The “some” includes The Associated Press, whose stylebook says “Rebut means to argue to the contrary: He rebutted his opponent’s statement. Refute connotes success in argument and almost always implies an editorial judgment. Instead, use deny, dispute, rebut or respond to. The New York Times Manual of Style of Usage also preserves the distinction. Its “rebut, refute” entry reads: “Rebut, a neutral word, means reply and take issue. Refute goes further, and often beyond what a writer intends: it means disprove, and successfully. Unless that is the intention, use rebut, dispute, deny or reject.

Garner’s Modern English Usage also holds the line, not unsurprising, since Bryan A. Garner is a lawyer and the editor of Black’s Law Dictionary and Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage, among other law-related books. He lists the misuse of “refute” for “rebut” and vice versa at Stage 1 on the five-stage Language-Change Index, equivalent to expulsion from a parliamentary body.

Journalists seeking truth and legitimacy should probably avoid “refute” unless there is indisputable evidence that something was inaccurate. Words like “deny” and “dispute” are harder to “refute.”

Between “rebut” and “refute” in the dictionary is the word “redoubtable.” It’s a “Janus word,” which can have opposite meanings depending on the context. As M-W says, “redoubtable” can mean either “causing fear or alarm” or “worthy of respect.” That means you can call Justice Kavanaugh “redoubtable” and be right, regardless of the side of the aisle you’re on.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.