Choosing the right word: rebut or refute?

By Christopher B. Daly

At the risk of sounding pedantic, I want to point out a classic journalistic error in word choice that appears in a story in today’s NYTimes. From Vatican City, pope-watcher Rachel Donadio writes:

In recent days, often speculative reports in the Italian news media — some even alleging gay sex scandals in the Vatican, others focusing on particular cardinals stung by the child sexual abuse crisis — have dominated headlines, suggesting fierce internal struggles as prelates scramble to consolidate power and attack their rivals in the dying days of a troubled papacy.

The reports, which the Vatican has vehemently refuted, touch on some of the most vexing issues of Benedict’s nearly eight-year reign, including a new round of accusations of child sexual abuse by priests and international criticism of the Vatican Bank’s opaque record-keeping.

The problem: the use of the word “refute.”

To refute an assertion means to prove it false or erroneous. Such proof can only come from those who are hearing or reading the argument and counter-argument.

The word Donadio needed to use was something like rebut – which means to attempt to prove something false or erroneous.

If you say that someone rebutted someone/something, it leaves open the question of whether the rebuttal was successful. If you say someone refuted someone/something, it jumps to the conclusion that the matter is settled. Almost always, journalists should not jump to conclusions or favor one side over the other. A verb that leaves the matter open is almost always preferred.

In fairness to Rachel Donadio, it is entirely possible that the wrong word was inserted into her copy by someone on an editing desk. These things happen all the time, driving reporters to distraction.

Class dismissed.




1 Comment

Filed under Journalism

One response to “Choosing the right word: rebut or refute?

  1. Ned Daly

    Not a patch on the error committed by some Boston Globe headline writer who misused the phrase “odds on” in a story about on-line betting on the identity of the new Pope.


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