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‘Rebut’ or ‘Refute’?

Even experienced writers mix up the meanings of "rebut" and "refute."

By
Mignon Fogarty,
A woman rebutting a point

A listener named Luke asked me to write about the difference between the words “rebut” and “refute.”

The Origins of 'Rebut' and 'Refute'

“Rebut" came to English in the 1300s from an Old French word that meant “to thrust back.”

“Refute” came later—from Middle French in the 1500s, but its Latin roots mean something very similar: “to drive back.” So the etymology doesn’t help us much here.

The ways the meanings have resolved today, “rebut” means to make an argument against something, and “refute” means to prove your case against something. In other words, if you rebut something successfully, you have refuted it.

Examples of 'Rebut' and 'Refute' Being Used Correctly

The Cinderella of the poem (let us imagine) is as radical as the Disney version is safe. She questions some of her culture’s deepest values and beliefs that women should marry men, that rich and handsome princes are automatically desirable, that a man can love a woman even if he can’t remember what she looks like. The other characters in the poem are, of course, horrified by her unorthodox views, and they do everything they can to contradict her. Every time she speaks, they rebut everything she says. But Cinderella is a clever debater, and she holds her own. They go on arguing and arguing until the Fairy Godmother shows up and angrily puts an end to the debate.

― Michael Austin, Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World's Greatest Poem

I can imagine a number of different ways that one might go about rebutting Poe’s metaphysical truth claims. But it makes no difference whether or not ravens can talk. Nothing about Poe’s poem can be supported, or refuted, by scientific knowledge about the vocalization mechanisms of the Corvus corax.

― Michael Austin, Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World's Greatest Poem

Using Alternatives to 'Rebut' and 'Refute'

In trying to find examples, I came across many well-known writers who used these words incorrectly, and Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary allows “refute” to have both meanings, so the confusion seems widespread. Still, many style guides, including Garner’s Modern English Usage and the AP Stylebook, strongly say we should continue to make a distinction between the two words. 

My suggestion and that of many style guides is to choose another word that will be more clear to your audience. 

For example, instead of saying, “You can’t refute my point,” it might be more clear to say, “You can’t disprove my point,” or “You can’t argue with my point,” if that’s what you mean instead.

Thanks for the question, Luke.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times bestseller, "Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing."

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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