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