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The term "deny" means to reject the truth of some claim. However, it often seems to imply the claim is in fact true, denial notwithstanding.

Smith continued to deny that he had shot Jones.

I believe it is for this reason that Wikipedia lists it as a potential "weasel word" used to subvert the neutrality of encyclopedic articles. Is there an alternative to "deny" that does not carry this non-neutral connotation?

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If I look at the same Wikipedia link, it seems to me that if you're trying to convey a neutral connotation, the safe words are: Said, stated, described, wrote, and according to. So, if you wanted to build a neutral sentence by selecting from these set of words, you could state: According to Smith, he had not shot Jones. –  K - Sep 2 at 7:32
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@K- -- That's fair enough as far as it goes, but your suggested wording isn't quite equivalent to the OP's query sentence. There, I feel that the juxtaposition of 'continue' and 'deny' implies the sense on the part of the speaker that Smith is stubbornly or deceitfully clinging to his version of the story. (Or am I injecting too much subjectivity into my interpretation?) –  Erik Kowal Sep 2 at 7:40
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@ErikKowal Yep, you're right, I missed the continue. I like your answer below of making the accusation against Smith an assertion as opposed to a fact to blunt the bias. But something more inherently neutral like, "According to Smith, he restated that he had not shot Jones" may suffice without the balancing act? –  K - Sep 2 at 7:48
    
'All that is necessary for the triumph of weasliness is that good senses are surrendered.' [after Burke] –  Edwin Ashworth Sep 2 at 8:04
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...So I deny that deny is a weasel word, and I deny that the "Wikipedia Manual of Style/Words to watch" guidelines consider deny a weasel word. You...can't...make...me...confess... –  Sven Yargs Sep 2 at 19:49

12 Answers 12

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Equally lacking in negative connotations, but not carrying the punctive aspect of K-'s answer, is:

Smith maintained that he had not shot Jones.

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Sorry, never heard of the word punctive and I've checked a few dictionaries. Can you please help elucidate what that word means? –  K - Sep 2 at 23:38
    
To my surprise, I found that even the Onelook.com metadictionary currently generates no hits for 'punctive'. However, if you Google punctive "Realms of Meaning: An Introduction to Semantics" "Th. R. Hofmann", you'll find all the information you need. Meanwhile, I can tell you that it refers to a verb where the action it describes is completed more or less instantaneously, as opposed to being durative -- i.e. taking place over an extended period. –  Erik Kowal Sep 3 at 2:55
    
StoneyB's explanation in this thread is good (although he uses the synonym 'punctual', which word I feel does enough work already). –  Edwin Ashworth Sep 3 at 4:40
    
"Punctive" and "durative" sound like something someone would take for digestive problems. –  Hot Licks Sep 3 at 19:01

Taking your example as a starting point, perhaps one might say

Smith continued to assert that he had not shot Jones.

Regardless of the degree to which this variation solves the problem, that problem remains the phenomenon in which a word such as toilet gains currency as a euphemistic replacement for some less savoury term, but then accumulates the same negative connotations as the term it has replaced.

Here, deny is fundamentally a simple assertion of negation which has accrued an aura of innuendo or suspicion purely by virtue of the fact that it has so often been attached to the utterances of miscreants.

This implies that even if a currently suitable replacement exists (because it is not yet tainted by negative associations), its purity of status will only be temporary, and yet another replacement will then have to be found. The most neutral alternative I can think of today is contradict the claim or contradict the assertion:

Smith continued to contradict the claim [or assertion] that he had shot Jones.

Deny suffers from the additional problem that for some people, its status may already be compromised by its secondary meaning of 'refuse to acknowledge' in the Biblical context of Peter denying Jesus at one point.

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The 'list of potential weasel words' will probably subsume the OED lexicon soon. I understand 'foxy' has become a whole lot weaslier of late. –  Edwin Ashworth Sep 2 at 7:59
    
@EdwinAshworth - Yes. Thank you, Edwin. :) –  Erik Kowal Sep 2 at 8:18
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Possibly the toilet connection again, via brush. Though this theory may be invalid. Perhaps the wolf, Canis loopus, is a stronger candidate. –  Edwin Ashworth Sep 2 at 8:28
    
Oh, and it was Wesson who shot Jones. –  Edwin Ashworth Sep 2 at 9:11
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@EdwinAshworth - Which is how the Wesson was chiefly won. –  Erik Kowal Sep 2 at 9:15

I would use refute.

Google gives this as one definition:

deny or contradict (a statement or accusation). "a spokesman totally refuted the allegation of bias"

So how about

"Smith refuted the claim that he had shot Jones"

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refute tends to mean something more like disprove. A refutation seems to suggest that some kind of evidence was presented. –  tobyink Sep 2 at 8:59
    
@Tobyink is right that this is the standard meaning of 'refute'. Unfortunately, nowadays one often encounters it being used in the weaker sense of 'deny' -- in other words, without the implication of disproof. –  Erik Kowal Sep 2 at 9:02
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This runs into the same (forgotten) distinction between 'persuade' and 'convince' - the former is the effort, the latter is the effect. –  Novelocrat Sep 3 at 1:00
    
@ErikKowal I have never in my life seen this word used to mean anything other than "disprove". But perhaps it is as you say. –  augurar Sep 5 at 3:50

Updated with jl6's input

I'm taking my discussion in the question's comments and summarizing it here as an answer in order to provide a slightly different perspective.

The sentence could be rephrased to,

"Smith reiterated that he had not shot Jones"

IMHO, concise and neutral.

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Yes, that's better than my suggestions. :) –  Erik Kowal Sep 2 at 8:16
    
It is only a restatement if it is said in a different way. –  Ben Sep 2 at 15:58
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@Ben: reiterated maybe? –  jl6 Sep 2 at 16:30
    
Reiterate implies repetition; one can deny something he has never denied before. –  Beta Sep 3 at 5:22
    
Yes, but continued to deny does imply repetition –  K - Sep 3 at 16:25

Smith is denying the accusation. In this sense, to deny something is to reject it. So you can say:

Smith continued to reject the accusation that he had shot Jones (even though he might have deserved it).

In other usage, you can reject the claim, reject the validity, reject the decision, etc. All of these, you can also deny, because the two words mean the same thing in this sense: Not to accept (as fact) or allow (permission).

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Yes, that is also good. Asserting and rejecting are currently both stronger ways of making a point than merely stating or denying. –  Erik Kowal Sep 2 at 9:07

In the legal system lawyers use Repudiate which means to reject the truth of, deny.

http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/repudiate

Smith kept on repudiating that he had shot Jones.

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Also good, though it would perhaps be more idiomatic to express it as "Smith kept repudiating the claim / the accusation that he had shot Jones". –  Erik Kowal Sep 2 at 9:11
    
This has the disadvantage of making the writer sound like a lawyer, though. –  augurar Sep 5 at 3:52

There is nothing wrong with using the word "deny" in this situation. It is accurate and neutral and does not in ordinary use carry the connotation that Wikipedia thinks it does.

If Wikipedia thinks it is a "weasel word" then that is more to do with the culture of Wikipedia. In particular, when wiki says:

Similarly, be judicious in the use of admit, confess, and deny, particularly of living people, because these verbs can convey guilt when that is not a settled matter.

This is a silly statement as the word "deny" does not in any way convey guilt. It conveys that they deny guilt.

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Wikipedia is correct. There is a problem with the connotation of "deny". Consider, for example that the first stage of grief is widely considered to be denial. This is a condition that certainly contradicts the fact of the matter, and in due course the person will continue through the grieving process and come eventually to accept that in fact the tragedy did occur. –  Mark Bailey Sep 2 at 17:14
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I'm with Ben on this question. As a matter of style, Wikipedia may instruct its writers to avoid the word deny, but its judgment that deny in any way implies guilt strikes me as being fundamentally idiosyncratic and impressionistic. When I deny that stoat, ferret, and ermine are weasel words, I don't implicitly admit anything. To the contrary, I implicitly assert the negative proposition—namely, that they are not weasel words. This is the plain meaning of the word deny, however wrong I may be about weasel words and whatever state of grief I may be in. –  Sven Yargs Sep 2 at 19:29
    
I am not talking about the definition of the word deny, but it's connotation. I'm not arguing what the word means. I'm talking about the baggage that comes with the word; the associations it carries from its usage history. How about this: Ben claims that Wikipedia's statement is "silly". What does claim mean? It means he is saying it is a silly statement. But when I use claim instead of assert, I draw in associations with the word claim, the fact that it is used in contexts where the claim is in dispute. And I say that Ben's claim is false; he ridicules something he does not understand. –  Mark Bailey Sep 3 at 19:37
    
@MarkBailey The connotation saying a person "denies" a thing is that other people "assert" that thing, not that it is true. That's why the Wikipedia claim is silly, not because there is no such thing as a connotation. Work on your English comprehension before you claim other people don't understand. –  Ben Sep 4 at 8:54

I would consider disputed.

A denied claim has been rejected.

A disputed claim is still being decided.

Smith disputes the claim that he shot Jones.

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Perhaps "Smith disputes the claim that he shot James"? –  Novelocrat Sep 3 at 1:01
    
@Novelocrat - It was already complicated enough. Now you have to go and introduce this 'James' character... –  Erik Kowal Sep 3 at 3:30
    
Unfortunately, "dispute" carries a connotation of arguing a point without necessarily believing it. –  Hot Licks Sep 3 at 17:42

The bias is not specific to the word deny. Simply the fact that somebody felt the need to deny something and you feel the need to mention it suggests it might actually be true and this may be perceived by some readers for any synonym you use. I would suggest trying to establish the neutrality of the statement itself separately instead. Something along the lines of:

Smith continued to deny that he had shot Jones. There is no evidence for or against that claim.

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The trouble with most of the answers that I see here is that they don't appear neutral to the claim. To be neutral to the claim, the word has to be one of those that might be attributed to a politician, for example. Politicians want to avoid discussing some accusals, because no matter how they respond, they can regret it later.


A neutral word would describe a non-denial denial (Wikipedia)

a statement that seems direct, clearcut and unambiguous at first hearing, but when carefully parsed is revealed not to be a denial at all, and is thus not untruthful. It is a case in which words that are literally true are used to convey a false impression; analysis of whether or when such behavior constitutes lying is a long-standing issue in ethics. London's newspaper The Sunday Times has defined it as "an on-the-record statement, usually made by a politician, repudiating a journalist's story, but in such a way as to leave open the possibility that it is actually true."

The Times article states that the non-denial denial repudiates a story in such a way that it might be true. They are actually saying that the on-denial denial appears to repudiate, but in actual fact it does no such thing.

Now Smith have a lot of weasel words that amount to a non-denial denial, but with a single word describing Smith's reaction to the claim, one could say

Smith dismissed the claim that he had shot Jones.

More famously

Hillary Clinton dismissed claims at the hearing about her knowledge of the cause of the attack, theatrically answering "What difference at this point does it make?.

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But "dismissed" carries a connotation that the claim was simply regarded as too trivial to consider. –  Hot Licks Sep 3 at 17:44
    
@HotLicks The whole point of the non-denial denial is that it intentionally doesn't imply anything. The reader or listener can make any inference they want (as you did), and the one making this sort of denial can later claim you had it all wrong. And how can one infer that dismissing an accusation of something as serious as murder should mean the accused thinks it's a trivial accusation? (Oh, did you down vote my answer?) –  Canis Lupus Sep 3 at 18:12
    
No, I didn't down-vote. I think my larger point was that any synonym for "deny" is going to carry a negative connotation. I'm trying to remember where I heard something like "The more vigorously you deny it, the more I believe it's true." –  Hot Licks Sep 3 at 18:58
    
As to appearing "neutral", the basic problem is that no word (even "neutral") is entirely neutral and free of connotations, one way or the other. –  Hot Licks Sep 3 at 19:04

I think correct is the correct word. :) Yet it seems to imply a positive in the way deny asserts a negative.

Smith was quick to correct any assertion of his guilt in the death of Jones as he maintains his innocence.

or throw out that word totally and just say maintains by itself.

Smith maintains his innocence and noninvolvement in the situation.

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negate is sometimes useful

  1. make ineffective; nullify. "alcohol negates the effects of the drug" synonyms: invalidate, nullify, render null and void, render invalid, make ineffective, neutralize, cancel (out); More antonyms: confirm, support, validate
  2. make (a clause, sentence, or proposition) negative in meaning.

"Smith continued to negate the assertion that he had shot Jones"

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