Save “Dispute” For People

By Maeve Maddox

The verb dispute, like contradict, connotes disagreement.

Unlike contradict, dispute does not work equally well with human and nonhuman referents.

The following “clickbait” headline illustrates what I mean:

13 Facts That Will Dispute The Person Who Says Reagan was a Great President

Facts or people may contradict, but only people dispute.

The verb dispute entered English from Old French in the thirteenth century with the meaning “to contend with opposing arguments; to debate or argue.” That remains the chief meaning. Another meaning is “to challenge.”

Here are examples of correct usage:

“The people are tired of political parties disputing among themselves,” he says.

How to dispute an error on your credit report

Some Experts Dispute Claims Of Looming Doctor Shortage

Scientists offered cash to dispute climate study

Here are examples in which the verb dispute is used where contradict or another word or phrase would be more apt:

There is no evidence in the record that will dispute the fact that Tiger Inn does not invite guest lecturers to speak on its premises.

If a person strongly believes in something, any fact that will dispute their point will be automatically denied.

The following example from a site belonging to a Spanish speaker seems to use dispute in the sense of contend or perhaps prevail:

Fourth step, we must begin to interpret our strategy by thinking about tactical actions. These are the concrete facts that will dispute over the space of our adversary.

I suspect that dispute may be going in the direction of an all-purpose synonym for contradict because it is shorter than most of the alternatives.

Meanwhile, careful writers will think twice about who or what is doing the disputing and save the verb dispute for people.

Synonyms for dispute in the sense of “to argue” or “to voice disagreement”:
debate
discuss
exchange views
quarrel
disagree
clash
fall out
wrangle
bicker
squabble

Words and phrases that may be used with nonhuman referents in the sense of contradict or refute:

contest [kon-TEST]
disprove
prove wrong
prove false
debunk
discredit
invalidate
confute
conflict with
be at odds with
be at variance with
be inconsistent with
run counter to
disagree with

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2 Responses to “Save “Dispute” For People”

  • Caitlin

    Also, disputing a person just sounds weird, if not impossible. Isn’t it more appropriate to dispute something a person has said?

  • Emily Dauscher

    Maeve, regarding your first example of correct usage: “The people are tired of political parties disputing among themselves…” I consider this use of “dispute” incorrect; at best, it is awkward. As you say, people dispute; while I don’t dispute the fact that a political party is a group of people, it is a group, a rather amorphous group at that, and often united in name only. Other verbs convey the intended meaning and offer a more positive impression of the writer’s communication skills.

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