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Refute-watch II

October 19, 2013

From a report in today’s Independent, by Adam Withnall: ‘[Larry Flynt] also refuted claims that [the death penalty] is the most severe sentence available’. No refutation follows, merely Flynt’s opinion that being imprisoned in a small cell for life is worse than death. It’s a point of view, but that’s all it is.

To repeat, although I am sure you all know this, refute means, or is supposed to mean, disprove. It’s all too commonly used to mean deny, an unnecessary weakening of a strong and precise word. Misuse of it always makes me wince a little, but I mind much more when it is misused by someone whose profession is writing. If a farmer or a footballer or a pharmacist said refute when they meant deny, I would perhaps feel a slight twinge of irritation, but I wouldn’t really blame them. Words are not their trade. But when a professional journalist,  one whose vocation it is to describe things accurately, makes this mistake, it both infuriates and mystifies me. How could Adam Withnall have failed to be aware of the true meaning of this word?  It’s his job to get that sort of thing right. And why didn’t a sub pick the error up?

Can we all work together on this and see if we can save the true meaning of  refute, or at least postpone its passing?  Let’s use it correctly, and draw attention to its misuse.

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One Comment
  1. Mark Brafield permalink

    Entirely agree Brandon. My work sometimes takes me to court where I increasingly hear litigants, normally with weak cases and who have watched too many American courtroom dramas, tell me that they are going to refute an allegation when, clearly, they mean deny. I always look forward eagerly to the crushing evidence they are going to produce and am invariably disappointed. And on Waterloo Road this week, Christine Mulgrew, the headmistress, declared that she was going to refute the charges against her. I wince with you.

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