Rebuttal: Definition, Usage and Examples

Weakening an Opponent's Claim With Facts

rebuttal

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A rebuttal takes on a couple of different forms. As it pertains to an argument or debate, the definition of a rebuttal is the presentation of evidence and reasoning meant to weaken or undermine an opponent's claim; however, in persuasive speaking, a rebuttal is typically part of a discourse with colleagues and rarely as a stand-alone speech.

Rebuttals are used in law, public affairs, and politics—they're in the thick of effective public speaking. They also can be found in academic publishing, editorials, and letters to the editor in your local newspaper, formal responses to personnel matters, or customer service complaints/reviews. A rebuttal is also called a counterargument.

Rebuttal Definition: Types and Occurrences

Rebuttals can come into play during any kind of argument or occurrence where someone has to defend a position contradictory to another opinion presented. Evidence backing up the rebuttal position is key.

Academics

Formally, students use rebuttal in debate competitions. In this arena, rebuttals don't make new arguments, just battle the positions already presented, in a specific, timed format. For example, a rebuttal may get four minutes after an argument presented in eight.

Publishing

In academic publishing, an author presents an argument in a paper, such as on a work of literature, stating why it should be seen in a particular light. A rebuttal letter about the paper can find the flaws in the argument and evidence cited, and present contradictory evidence. If a writer of a paper has the paper rejected for publishing by the journal, a well-crafted rebuttal letter can give further evidence of the quality of the work and the due diligence taken to come up with the thesis or hypothesis.

Law

In law, an attorney can present a rebuttal witness to show that a witness on the other side is in error. For example, after the defense has presented its case, the prosecution can present rebuttal witnesses. This is new evidence only and witnesses that contradict defense witness testimony. Also, an effective rebuttal to a closing argument in a trial can leave enough doubt in the jury's minds to have a defendant found not guilty.

Politics

In public affairs and politics, people can argue points in front of the local city council or even speak in front of their state government. Our representatives in Washington present diverging points of view on bills up for debate. Citizens can argue policy and present rebuttals in the opinion pages of the newspaper.

Work

On the job, if a person has a complaint brought against him to the human resources department, that employee has a right to respond and tell his or her side of the story in a formal procedure, such as a rebuttal letter.

Business

In business, if a customer leaves a poor review of service or products on a website, the company's owner or a manager will likely need to at minimum diffuse the situation by apologizing and offering a concession for goodwill. But in some cases, a business needs to be defended. Maybe the irate customer left out of the complaint the fact that she was inebriated and screaming at the top of her lungs when she was asked to leave the shop. Rebuttals in these types of instances need to be delicately and objectively phrased.

Characteristics of an Effective Rebuttal

"If you disagree with a comment, explain the reason," says Tim Gillespie in "Doing Literary Criticism." He notes that "mocking, scoffing, hooting, or put-downs reflect poorly on your character and on your point of view. The most effective rebuttal to an opinion with which you strongly disagree is an articulate counterargument."

Rebuttals that rely on facts are also more ethical than those that rely solely on emotion or diversion from the topic through personal attacks on the opponent. That is the arena where politics, for example, can stray from trying to communicate a message into becoming a reality show.

With evidence as its central focal point, a good rebuttal relies on several elements to win an argument, including a clear presentation of the counterclaim, recognizing the inherent barrier standing in the way of the listener accepting the statement as truth, and presenting evidence in a clear and concise manner while remaining courteous and highly rational.

The evidence, as a result, must do the bulk work of proving the argument while the speaker should also preemptively defend certain erroneous attacks the opponent might make against it.

That is not to say that a rebuttal can't have an emotional element, as long as it works with evidence. A statistic about the number of people filing for bankruptcy per year due to medical debt can pair with a story of one such family as an example to support the topic of health care reform. It's both illustrative—a more personal way to talk about dry statistics—and an appeal to emotions.

Preparing an Effective Rebuttal

To prepare an effective rebuttal, you need to know your opponent's position thoroughly to be able to formulate the proper attacks and to find evidence that dismantles the validity of that viewpoint. The first speaker will also anticipate your position and will try to make it look erroneous.

You will need to show:

  • Contradictions in the first argument
  • Terminology that's used in a way in order to sway opinion (bias) or used incorrectly. For example, when polls were taken about "Obamacare," people who didn't view the president favorably were more likely to want the policy defeated than when the actual name of it was presented as the Affordable Care Act.
  • Errors in cause and effect
  • Poor sources or misplaced authority
  • Examples in the argument that are flawed or not comprehensive enough
  • Flaws in the assumptions that the argument is based on
  • Claims in the argument that are without proof or are widely accepted without actual proof. For example, alcoholism is defined by society as a disease, though there isn't irrefutable medical proof that it is a disease like diabetes, for instance; it manifests itself more like behavioral disorders, which are psychological.

The more points in the argument that you can dismantle, the more effective your rebuttal. Keep track of them as they're presented in the argument, and go after as many individually as you can.

Refutation: Definition

The word rebuttal can be used interchangeably with refutation, which includes any contradictory statement in an argument; however, strictly speaking, the distinction between the two is that a rebuttal must provide evidence, whereas a refutation merely relies on a contrary opinion. They differ in legal and argumentation contexts, wherein refutation involves any counterargument while rebuttals rely on contradictory evidence to provide a means for a counterargument.

A successful refutation may disprove evidence with reasoning, but rebuttals must present evidence.