Thursday, November 2, 2023

Don't dispute refute

I grumped this morning about that article that used refuted in a context plainly indicating that the sense was "disputed" or "rebutted," and someone reminded me that those senses of refute have become widespread enough to be included in dictionaries. 

One colleague, alluding to yesterday's post, said, "You can’t blog about how 'literally' is a perfectly acceptable substitute for 'figuratively' and then split this hair."

I answered: Watch me. 

Are you watching?

The non-literal use of literally is not some linguistic innovation for which we can blame Millennials. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage points out that what it calls the "hyperbolic use" of the word was common in the nineteenth century and can even be traced to Pope. A use so well-attested for so long hardly seems worth fuming and fretting over today. 

Had I been editing that article that ran this morning, I would have changed refuted to either disputed or rebutted, as has been my practice. Since the earlier sense of refute, "to disprove conclusively," survives though blurred, I prefer to retain it for contexts that plainly indicate that sense. 

An example: Sixty court cases have refuted Donald Trump's assertion that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent. 

As far as I am concerned, the hair has been split.