Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Cicero, De Oratore, 55 BC.

In rhetoric, refutation is the part of an argument in which a speaker or writer counters opposing points of view. Also called confutation.

Refutation is "the key element in debate," say the authors of The Debater's Guide  (2011). Refutation "makes the whole process exciting by relating ideas and arguments from one team to those of the other" (The Debater's Guide, 2011).

In speeches, refutation and confirmation are often presented "conjointly with one another" (in the words of the unknown author of Ad Herrenium): support for a claim (confirmation) can be enhanced by a challenge to the validity of an opposing claim (refutation).

In classical rhetoric, refutation was one of the rhetorical exercises known as the progymnasmata.

Examples and Observations

  • "Refutation is the part of an essay that disproves the opposing arguments. It is always necessary in a persuasive paper to refute or answer those arguments. A good method for formulating your refutation is to put yourself in the place of your readers, imagining what their objections might be. In the exploration of the issues connected with your subject you may have encountered possible opposing viewpoints in discussions with classmates or friends. In the refutation you refute those arguments by proving the opposing basic proposition untrue or showing the reasons to be invalid. . . .

    "In general, there is a question about whether the refutation should come before or after the proof. The arrangement will differ according to the particular subject and the number and strength of the opposing arguments. If the opposing arguments are strong and widely held, they should be answered at the beginning. In this case, the refutation becomes a large part of the proof . . .. At other times when the opposing arguments are weak, the refutation will play only a minor part in the overall proof."
    (Winifred Bryan Horner, Rhetoric in the Classical Tradition. St. Martin's, 1988)

    Indirect and Direct Refutation

    • "Debaters refute through an indirect means when they use counter-argument to attack the case of an opponent. Counter-argument is the demonstration of such a high degree of probability for your conclusions that the opposing view loses its probability and is rejected. . . .
    • "Direct refutation attacks the arguments of the opponent with no reference to the constructive development of an opposing view. . . . The most effective refutation, as you can probably guess, is a combination of the two methods so that the strengths of the attack come from both the destruction of the opponents' views and the construction of an opposing view." (Jon M. Ericson, James J. Murphy, and Raymond Bud Zeuschner, The Debater's Guide, 4th ed. Southern Illinois University Press, 2011)
    • "An effective refutation must speak directly to an opposing argument. Often writers or speakers will claim to be refuting the opposition, but rather than doing so directly, will simply make another argument supporting their own side. This is a form of the fallacy of irrelevance through evading the issue." (Donald Lazere, Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy: The Critical Citizen's Guide to Argumentative Rhetoric. Taylor & Francis, 2009). 

    Cicero on Confirmation and Refutation

    "[T]he statement of the case . . . must clearly point out the question at issue. Then must be conjointly built up the great bulwarks of your cause, by fortifying your own position, and weakening that of your opponent; for there is only one effectual method of vindicating your own cause, and that includes both the confirmation and refutation.

    You cannot refute the opposite statements without establishing your own; nor can you, on the other hand, establish your own statements without refuting the opposite; their union is demanded by their nature, their object, and their mode of treatment. The whole speech is, in most cases, brought to a conclusion by some amplification of the different points, or by exciting or mollifying the judges; and every aid must be gathered from the preceding, but more especially from the concluding parts of the address, to act as powerfully as possible upon their minds, and make them zealous converts to your cause."
    (Cicero, De Oratore, 55 BC)

    Richard Whately on Refutation

    "Refutation of Objections should generally be placed in the midst of the Argument; but nearer the beginning than the end.

    "If indeed very strong objections have obtained much currency, or have been just stated by an opponent, so that what is asserted is likely to be regarded as paradoxical, it may be advisable to begin with a Refutation."
    (Richard Whately, Elements of Rhetoric, 1846)​​

    FCC Chairman William Kennard's Refutation

    "There will be those who say 'Go slow. Don't upset the status quo.' No doubt we will hear this from competitors who perceive that they have an advantage today and want regulation to protect their advantage. Or we will hear from those who are behind in the race to compete and want to slow down deployment for their own self interest. Or we will hear from those that just want to resist changing the status quo for no other reason than change brings less certainty than the status quo. They will resist change for that reason alone.

    "So we may well hear from a whole chorus of naysayers. And to all of them I have only one response: we cannot afford to wait. We cannot afford to let the homes and schools and businesses throughout America wait. Not when we have seen the future. We have seen what high capacity broadband can do for education and for our economy. We must act today to create an environment where all competitors have a fair shot at bringing high capacity bandwidth to consumers--especially residential consumers. And especially residential consumers in rural and underserved areas."
    (William Kennard, Chairman of the FCC, July 27, 1998)

    From the Old English, "beat"

    Pronunciation: REF-yoo-TAY-shun