• 2-minute read
  • 31st October 2017

Word Choice: Refute vs. Rebut

‘Refute’ and ‘rebut’ are both commonly used to mean ‘deny’ or ‘reject’. However, these terms have distinct meanings of their own, so they shouldn’t be used interchangeably.

To avoid errors in your written work, then, try to keep the following in mind.

Refute (Disprove)

To ‘refute’ something is to disprove it, which requires more than a simple denial. Rather, refuting something involves using evidence or counterarguments to show that it’s false:

After weeks of research, we were able to fully refute Dr Spurio’s claims.

For instance, while some people deny that we’ve visited the moon, ‘refuting’ this would involve providing scientific evidence that it was a hoax.

And if you try that, you’ll have to answer to Buzz.
(Photo: NASA)

A successful attempt to refute something is known as a ‘refutation’.

Rebut (Argue Against)

When we ‘rebut’ something, we argue against it. This can imply that something has been disproved:

She rebutted the argument by pointing out several errors.

But it can simply mean ‘argue against’, even when something is still disputed:

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He will rebut the claims at a press conference later today.

Both of these are fine, but a ‘rebuttal’ should involve an attempt to argue a point, not just a denial.

Refute or Rebut?

This all depends on the situation. If something has been fully disproved, it has been ‘refuted’. If it has simply been argued against (but not necessarily disproved), it has been ‘rebutted’.

Importantly, neither word quite means ‘deny’. You can ‘deny’ something without any evidence or argument (even if nobody believes you). But to ‘rebut’ or ‘refute’ something implies that you’ve at least tried to argue against it, offering a different point of view or version of events.

This distinction is often ignored in everyday speech, where ‘rebut’ is widely used to mean ‘deny’. But it is worth maintaining in formal writing. Remember:

Refute = Disprove

Rebut = Deny or argue against

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