A rebuttal (ree-BUH-tuhl) is a literary device wherein a writer presents reasons or evidence that undermine or challenge an opposing argument. Though rebuttals are not uncommon in literature, they are most often associated with court cases, where they are a type of evidence that contradicts or invalidates the evidence presented by the opposite party.
A rebuttal tends to be a formal, well-reasoned argument, so a simple refutation, an ad hominem attack, or a “clapback” is not a rebuttal. The word itself comes from the Old French word reboter/rebuter, which means “to thrust back.”
The Elements of a Rebuttal
An effective rebuttal has several components, each contributing something critical to the central argument.
- The writer/speaker presents the other side’s argument clearly and accurately, without any distortions or factual omissions that would serve their own argument.
- The writer/speaker utilizes exact quotations when necessary, whether they come from the opposing side or some other source. This serves to underscore the accuracy and integrity of the writer/speaker’s claim.
- The writer/speaker’s evidence is rational and logical and doesn’t rely on baseless theories or easily disproved information.
- The writer/speaker presents their argument professionally, tactfully, and respectfully, without resorting to personal attacks, ridicule, or condescension.
- The writer/speaker’s evidence offers constructive criticism of the opposing viewpoint. While the argument doesn’t need to be Pollyannaish or overly solicitous, neither should it be explicitly negative or harsh. In other words, it should have some genuine merit that enlightens the opposite side while illuminating the fallacy of their argument.
The Function of a Rebuttal
The main function of any rebuttal is to prove an argument’s error or fallacy. A rebuttal lays out, often in detail, the erroneousness of the opposing position through specific facts that contradict the other side’s claims. The intent, however, is not just to refute. A rebuttal should also correct and inform.
In nonfiction works, rebuttals allow writers to expound upon their personal perspectives. They might challenge ideas put forth by other writers, groups or governments, religions, or any other source that posits arguments antithetical to the writer’s position. In fiction and dramatic works, rebuttals compare characters’ perspectives, giving readers a deeper understanding of the characters’ internal belief systems and thought processes while propelling the story forward with the natural tension that arises from challenging an idea head on.
Rebuttals and Other Types of Arguments
Rebuttals vs. Counterarguments
A counterargument is an argument opposed to one’s own position. Essentially, it presents reasoning and evidence your opponent would make when trying to discredit you or challenge your ideas. A writer mainly uses counterarguments not to negate their own points—which would only deter from their larger purpose—but to preemptively show how the other side feels or would react. This way, the writer can launch a sort of preventative rebuttal that emphasizes their own argument.
Counterarguments, however, are not rebuttals in the strictest sense. Rebuttals are direct responses that highlight individual errors and fallacies in the other side’s way of thinking. Counterarguments are, by nature, more generalized.
Persuasive essays, theses, academic papers, and opinion pieces such as op-eds and personal essays frequently employ counterarguments.
Rebuttals vs. Refutations
A refutation is a conclusive disproval, which is different from a rebuttal. A rebuttal is trying to disprove an argument, while a refutation successfully does it. That’s not to say that a rebuttal cannot be a successful argument. However, from the information rebuttals present, one cannot absolutely, unequivocally conclude that the argument is unassailable. The difference here is subtle but distinct.
For example, the issue of rebut versus refute achieved some notoriety during the Senate Judiciary Committee questioning of Brett Kavanaugh after President Donald Trump nominated him to the US Supreme Court. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party in 1982. When Kavanaugh responded to her testimony, he said, “Dr. Ford’s allegation is not merely uncorroborated, it is refuted by the very people she says were there, including by a long-time friend of hers. Refuted.” His use of refute is incorrect in this instance. He uses the word as a synonym for disprove or deny. The truth is that “the very people she says were there” testified that they didn’t remember the incident, which is not a refutation or a denial. The word rebut, then, is more appropriate because it challenges the previously presented argument based on the facts provided without being able to completely disprove its position.
Rebuttals vs. Objections
An objection has a broader meaning than a rebuttal in that it is any expression of opposition or disagreement. Objections can include a direct questioning of the argument that was originally put forth. However, an objection doesn’t need to present a reasoned argument or a rational approach; for instance, just saying “I disagree” is an objection. Rebuttals, counterarguments, and refutations are all types of objections.
Rebuttals Outside of Literature
Rebuttals are common in the legal world. They’re a specific type of evidence submitted to the courts to disprove or invalidate evidence submitted by the opposing side. A defined set of rules dictate how the legal system handles rebuttals. For instance, the rebuttal must only address the exact points made in the opposing party’s original argument; new evidence on any other subject in the case is inadmissible at that time. A rebuttal can involve calling surprise witnesses or submitting surprise evidence as long as it pertains directly to the subject(s) of the other side’s original argument.
In politics, public affairs, and public discourse, rebuttals are a common part of communication. The US Congress engages in partisan rebuttals on a routine basis. After every Presidential State of the Union Address, a representative from the party not currently holding office gives a rebuttal speech that counters arguments the president made moments before. In media and public relations, high-profile individuals like politicians, actors, singers, and activists release statements rebutting arguments, perceptions, or accusations made against them.
Sales and marketing techniques employ rebuttals to increase sales figures and revenue. Most direct sales training entails advice on how to rebut a potential customer’s initial rejection of a proposed product or service. A salesperson will try to appeal to a customer’s reason, emotions, or ethics to make the sale; this appeal is a type of rebuttal.
Examples of Rebuttals in Literature
1. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
In Lee’s classic novel, Southern lawyer Atticus Finch attempts to defend Tom Robinson, an African American man, after a woman named Mayella Ewell falsely accuses him of rape. At trial, the prosecution presents evidence that they feel points definitively to Tom being the assaulter. In this passage, Atticus offers a rebuttal to the theory:
What did her father do? We don’t know, but there is circumstantial evidence to indicate that Mayella Ewell was beaten savagely by someone who led most exclusively with his left. We do know in part what Mr. Ewell did: he did what any God-fearing, preserving, respectable white man would do under circumstances—he swore a warrant, no doubt signing with his left hand, and Tom Robinson now sits before you, having taken the oath with the only good hand he possesses—his right hand.
For his rebuttal, Finch explains that Mayella’s attacker used his left hand while Tom is only able to use his right hand. Thus, he wants to disprove the prosecution’s argument by showing it as fallacious based on the defendant’s physical limitations.
2. Arthur Miller, The Crucible
In Miller’s play set during the Salem, Massachusetts, witchcraft hysteria, a group of adolescent girls accuses several townspeople of being witches. Abigail Williams, one of the accusers, points to her former employer, Elizabeth Proctor, who fired Abigail after discovering the girl’s brief affair with Elizabeth’s husband John. Abigail’s actions are clearly a spurned lover’s revenge, so John offers the following rebuttal to make clear the reason for these false accusations:
JOHN PROCTOR. I have known her, sir. I have known her….
In the proper place—where my beasts are bedded. On the last night of my joy, some eight months past. She used to serve me in my house, sir. A man may think God sleeps, but God sees everything, I know it now. I beg you, sir, I beg you—see her what she is. My wife, my dear good wife, took this girl soon after, sir, and put her out on the highroad. And being what she is, a lump of vanity, sir…. She thinks to dance with me on my wife’s grave! And well she might, for I thought of her softly. God help me, I lusted, and there is a promise in such sweat. But it is a whore’s vengeance, and you must see it; I set myself entirely in your hands, I know you must see it now.
In this example, rather than rebutting the accusation of witchcraft itself, John is rebutting Abigail’s motivations. The teenagers present themselves as credible witnesses to witchcraft, so John hopes to prove Abigail is using this opportunity to get rid of her lover’s wife.
3. Benjamin Franklin’s Op-Ed in the January 2, 1766, issue of the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser
A writer identified as Vindex Patriae opposed the colonists’ right to representation in Parliament. He refused to acknowledge the importance of colonial-era American trade to the British economy. Patriae dismissed the colonies’ boycott of British tea because, in his opinion, the American diet—namely corn—was reprehensible and required tea to be palatable. Franklin replied with this op-ed:
Vindex Patriae, a writer in your paper, comforts himself, and the India Company, with the fancy that the Americans, should they resolve to drink no more tea, can by no means keep that resolution, their Indian corn not affording “an agreeable, or easy digestible breakfast.” Pray let me, an American, inform the gentleman, who seems quite ignorant of the matter, that Indian corn, take it for all in all, is one of the most aggregable and wholesome grains in the world; that its green ears roasted are a delicacy beyond expression; that samp, hominy, succotash, and nolehock, made of it, are so many pleasing varieties; and that a johny, or hoecake, hot from the fire, is better than a Yorkshire muffin. But if Indian corn were as disagreeable and indigestible as the Stamp Act, does he imagine we can get nothing else for breakfast?
By extolling the virtues of American-grown corn, Franklin was rebutting Patriae’s claim that the colonies’ diet was lacking in quality.
Further Resources on Rebuttals
Columbia Journalism Review explores the rebut-versus-refute controversy in more detail.
LawShelf has more information on using rebuttals and surrebuttals (rebuttals of rebuttals) in legal cases.
Pen and the Pad has advice on how to write a rebuttal essay.
Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab offers guidance on how to organize a rebuttal for an essay or thesis.
SalesScripter breaks down some common rebuttals used in sales.