Friday, October 08, 2010

A good time to be prescriptive

To everything there is a season. There is a time to put on the flowery garb and dance through the fields going hullo trees, hullo sky, usage is what The People say it is! And there is a time to be annoying and prescriptive and utterly inflexible. Guess which concept is illustrated here?

Right. There may be some observation-based case for agreeing that, yes, sometimes people use "refute" (to prove something wrong) to mean "rebut" (to contradict something or argue against it). There will be cases in which that's a minor concern. Let us suggest that a senior official denying that the board over which that official presides has actually done something it's been rumored to have done is not such a case. Especially when it's couched in terms like:

"None of that happened. None, none, none," said Hannah Gage, the board's chairwoman. "I can assure that none of that happened. That hasn't been part of any discussion we've had."

For those of you who don't keep up with the stuff Carolina does before basketball season starts, the football coach is on a bit of a slippery slope over the situation* involving, hem-hem and inter alia, a bit too much familiarity between his staff and the world of professional sports agentry. I'm overall a bit less worried about that than about the sheer proportion of reporting resources being dumped into the scandal, as opposed to, oh, the sort of wars and rumors-of-wars that journalists ought to be paying attention to. But all that aside, we ought to be perking our ears up whenever people in power say "None, none, none."

She may be right, she may be crazy. Our job is to make sure we don't stack the deck in advance by, oh, letting Carolina "refute" stuff while Duke or Clempson has to "rebut." On this one, you may stomp around and be as prescriptivist as you want.

* Can't speak to the situation at the originating paper, but at the Obs in its glory days, one consulted up the ladder before declaring in print that something was a "scandal." 

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Blogger John Cowan said...

Here's the relevant OED definition. The 1886 quotation is probably mock-ignorant, but the 1895 one looks totally serious, and Canadian to boot. So you are more than a hundred years too late.

5. trans. To reject (an allegation, assertion, report, etc.) as without foundation; to repudiate.

Criticized as erroneous in usage guides in the 20th cent. In many instances it is unclear whether there is an implication of argument accompanying the assertion that something is baseless (making the use sense 2).

1886 Money 22 Dec. 911/1 Mind, i ain't a snob; I utterly refute that idear. I don't judge bi the koat he wares, or the joolery, or nothing of that kind.
1895 Manitoba Morning Free Press 13 Jan. 11/5 Members wish to refute the assertions..that Hayes council ‘is on its last legs’. Never in the history of the council was it in better shape.
1942 C. HEADLAM Diary 8 July in S. Ball Parl. & Politics in Age Churchill & Attlee (1999) ix. 325 Dorman Smith, Governor of Burma..utterly refuted the gossip that the Burmese had welcomed the Japanese.
1980 Bookseller 19 July 257/1, I refute Mr Bodey's allegation that it is our policy not to observe publication dates.
2006 Arizona Daily Star (Tucson) (Nexis) 12 July, Bernice..refuted a magazine report in which her son said he preferred the University of Miami (Fla.) over the Wildcats.

8:45 PM, October 08, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't tell what newspaper's site this is from. The byline is N&O, but that means little these days.

8:47 PM, October 12, 2010  

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