Thursday, September 14, 2017

Misused word of the day: refute

Pay attention to the news for a while, and you’ll notice the word refute misused. The word is not, as Garner’s Modern English Usage (2016) points out, “synonymous with rebut or deny”:

That is, it doesn’t mean merely “to counter an argument” but “to disprove beyond doubt; to prove a statement false.” Yet the word is commonly misused for rebut.
As it was tonight: “At the White House, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders quickly refuted the Democrats’ version of events.” No. She contradicted their version, or denied it. But she didn’t prove it false.

For a different perspective on refute being used to mean “to deny the truth or accuracy of,” see The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (1989):
Most usage commentators now routinely take note of it, and all that do consider it a mistake (the British, in particular, seem to feel strongly on this subject). It is, however, extremely common, and the contexts in which it occurs are standard.
Yes, but it’s still a mistake, and a terribly misleading one if a listener or reader takes refute to mean that a statement has been disproved when it has merely been denied. “I am not a crook”: denial, not refutation.

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