When it comes to copy editing, I’m not particularly strict — let the author have some personal style. We all use words a little differently.

But one thing that has been annoying me lately is what I regard as the misuse of the word refute. Newspaper journalists and others consistently use refute when they mean rebut. They will write, “Senator Obama refuted Senator Clinton’s argument that she is the most electable candidate.” What I understand from that sentence is that Obama proved that Clinton’s statement was wrong. Whereas what the author means to say is that Obama responded to Clinton’s assertion and argued for a different point of view — in other words, he rebutted her argument.

  • refute: to prove to be false or erroneous
  • rebut: to oppose by contrary argument

I know that some would say that these words are or can be synonymous, or that words are defined by their usage, which should just be described and not prescribed. But that sacrifices a distinction that we are otherwise able to make, one that seems to me worth preserving.