In our time of fake news and ‘alternative facts’, the words we use only take on added importance.

So it was disturbing to hear a BBC news bulletin relate that a public figure had ‘refuted the allegations’ made against him. (Apologies, I remember my annoyance, but not the identity of the alleged miscreant.)

A subtle but important distinction here: The presenter was not quoting verbatim from a statement issued on behalf of Mr X. As: “I refute these claims entirely,” X said. That would be fair and accurate. No. The reporter stated, as if it were a matter of fact, that Mr X had refuted the allegations.

Yet, the primary meaning of ‘refute’ is to disprove something. So our correspondent was effectively exonerating him, suggesting that the accused had shown he was innocent of the charge. At least, some of the listeners could reasonably have come away with that misunderstanding.

Blurring the facts

Common misuse of the word ‘refute’ has chipped away at its meaning, though we expect better of professional broadcasters.

So it has been blurred with a secondary meaning, cited in dictionaries; eg: Collins –

1. to prove (a statement, theory, charge, etc) of (a person) to be false or incorrect; disprove

2. to deny (a claim, charge, allegation, etc)

So is this just splitting hairs? The word ‘can’ mean either, so it doesn’t really matter?

Ah but it does. The PR person drafting Mr X’s statement is being paid to present as stout a defence as as they can get away with, to limit damage to his reputation. So, of course, his statement says he refutes the, no doubt baseless, claims.

But the judge, police or reporter is wise to that and, in the absence of proof, notes merely that X denies the charge; no more, no less.

Refute, rebut or refuff?

So for the sake of clarity and truth:

  • Mr X did NOT refute or disprove anything. Nor did he rebut the claim (as this also hardens the denial with overtones of disproof).

  • What Mr X did was deny, dismiss or reject the claims. And he may even have rebuffed them, especially if he was a tad angry.

Words have always been twisted, for nefarious purposes (even in marketing and sales, perish the thought). If you’re on the receiving end, it pays to be vigilant. If you’re the storyteller, it behoves you and your credibility to be clear and accurate.

Whether it’s the latest public scandal, or a contentious construction claim, let’s keep the distinction clear.

Sic-o-meter Score:

5 (due to professional negligence); 1.5 for the layman

* When searching vainly for this now, month-old news story online, I came across this archived story – from Guardian Media – concerning attacks on BBC reportage in October 2007:

Mind your language, critics warn BBC

One of the most common mistakes cited by language campaigners is the incorrect use of the word refute. They point out that the word means to disprove, not deny. On one broadcast about the death of Pakistan cricket coach Bob Woolmer, the presenter said Woolmer's 'wife Gill refutes speculation that her husband may have taken his own life following Pakistan's exit from the World Cup'.”

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