The daily news is so chock full of arguments, accusations, and harsh criticisms nowadays that I am wary of reading it. Sometimes the ire is backed up with well-reasoned arguments and loads of data, and other times it’s fueled by frustration, rage, or a firm faith in a factitious “way things are supposed to be.” There’s a certain precision to what you call these acts of logical argument, appeals to emotion, and even physical repulsion, and the difference may only be a few letters.
Many readers won’t immediately recognize the differences among these words, inferring a certain inaccurate meaning from the context and from their predisposition to the arguments. But that doesn’t mean we copy editors can reject the goal of editorial accuracy.
To reject carries the general concept of refusing to admit, accept, or receive something or someone for any reason, even a bad one. It is only the concept of refusal, implying no specific acts, means, or outcomes, unlike the other words on this list.
Its noun form is, of course, rejection, and who hasn’t had more experience with rejection than they care to? (If you haven’t, you’re either rich and beautiful or you’re not trying hard enough.)
To refute means to defeat someone else’s arguments completely — through logic, not force. Usage may be drifting toward refute meaning simply arguing against or disagreeing with someone without actually defeating the offending argument — something closer to rebut or repudiate (below) — but the distinction should be maintained.
To rebut means to attempt to refute, again through argument and fact and not through force. Thanks to the glut of courtroom dramas on television, people in general are more familiar with the noun form of this word — rebuttal — which offers up a good way to remember the difference between rebut and refute: Attorneys on both sides of the case offer rebuttals all the time, and they can’t both be right.
The existence of rebut to refer to the act of debating is a strong argument for maintaining the “defeat” sense of refute; there’s no reason to have refute try to do the job that rebut is already doing.
To repudiate means to reject as untrue or unjust. In the 16th century, writers used repudiate (from the Latin repudium) to refer to specific types of familial rejection — namely divorcing a spouse or disowning a child — but by the 19th century, its current and now more popular meaning had taken hold.
It’s important to remember that just because someone repudiates a statement or act doesn’t mean that the statement or act is actually untrue or unjust, only that the repudiator believes it to be. The next step is to rebut that act or statement. If the argument holds, the repudiator has successfully refuted the argument.
<Normally, this is where I would insert a bit of highbrow political humor about Sarah Palin’s use of refudiate. Unfortunately, I only know lowbrow jokes.>
To rebuke simply means to criticize sharply or to reprimand (possibly in tandem with a repudiation or refutation). Often, though, it can be confused with some of the other words on this list. For example, a SPIN magazine article about musician Kevin Gates’s conviction of misdemeanor battery after kicking a concertgoer states,
Gates defended himself saying that the fan was pulling on his shorts and cited Florida’s “Stand Your Ground Law.” The residing County Judge Sharon Franklin rebuked his argument.
It’s possible that Judge Franklin rebuked Gates himself, but she repudiated and possibly refuted his argument and sent him to prison for six months.
Even when rebuke is used accurately, readers might misunderstand, drawing a wrong conclusion from the context. Tread carefully here.
Rebuff is synonymous with rebuke in the sense of sharp criticism, but it also carries with it the concept of refusing or rejecting in a rude way, such as, for example, swatting your husband’s hand away when he reaches for you. Rebuff, like rebuke, can also be a noun.
One interesting* bit of trivia to note about these words: The all begin with an undetachable re-. One doesn’t ject, fute, but, pudiate, or buke once and then reject, refute, rebut, repudiate, or rebuke the second time. One does buff, of course, but that involves rubbing something to make it shine, and it’s etymologically unrelated. If you need to buff again to give something a real polish, you will re-buff — hyphenated precisely to avoid confusion with rebuff.
* Interest, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Your mileage may vary.