All three words seem to have similar meanings, but I am assuming the difference is that each may be more appropriate in different contexts. I am particularly interested in their use when talking about evidence, principles, or in the context of an argument, like:

"Contradictory evidence", "Contravening arguments", or "Controverting a position."

Here are the definitions I found (which may explain why I am confused about appropriate usage):

1. to go or act contrary to : violate "contravene a law"
2. to oppose in argument : contradict "contravene a proposition"

1. to assert the contrary of : take issue with "contradict a rumor"
2. to imply the opposite or a denial of "your actions contradict your words"

1. to dispute or oppose by reasoning "controvert a point in a discussion"

  • 2
    They do have rather different meanings, and I can't think of any instance where any of them could be interchanged. Have you tried looking them up in a dictionary? – WS2 Apr 16 '16 at 23:00
  • Please include the research you've done, or consider if your question suits our English Language Learners site better. Questions that can be answered using commonly-available references are off-topic. – Hot Licks Apr 17 '16 at 0:35
  • @HotLicks, sorry for the confusion, I have added more information to my question – Zachary Yates Apr 17 '16 at 18:26
  • @WS2: Yes I have, I have linked the definitions that confused me before. Are there other definitions that make the difference more clear? – Zachary Yates Apr 17 '16 at 18:28

All three words come to us from Latin, combining contra (against) with venire (come), vertere (turn), and dicere (say). Thus all three have a sense of opposition:

  • Contravene: infringe, come in conflict with, dispute. This usage is applied to violating a law or abridging someone's rights.
  • Contradict: to say the contrary or to be directly opposed.
  • Controvert: to engage in a dispute or make something a dispute, oppose

The OED quotes British biologist Thomas Huxley (the defender of Darwin's theory of evolution):

Are those conclusions so firmly based that we may not contravene them?

In this instance, contradict or controvert would make equal sense, but they are not always interchangeable:

  • Only contravene will do for the violations against, as in

    Serbia contravened the European Declaration of Human Rights

  • It is possible to dispute (controvert) a position without making arguments that directly oppose (contradict) it.
  • Only controvert has an intransitive use:

    Quakers do not controvert among themselves

  • Only contradict has a figurative use:

    Your arrogance contradicts your protestations of humility.

  • I suppose contradict and controvert, could in some circumstances be interchanged. But whilst contradict generally refers to a spoken instance of opposed opinion, controvert sounds altogether more formal and lengthy in argument. – WS2 Apr 17 '16 at 18:52
  • @WS2, hence my confusion, since the second definition of contravene from merriam webster seems to be the same as the definition of controvert. – Zachary Yates Apr 17 '16 at 20:37
  • @ZacharyYates I have personally never heard contravene used in the manner of that second definition, though the Oxford English Dictionary does have examples from the 18th & 19th centuries. – WS2 Apr 17 '16 at 21:23

I see the words broken apart. "contra", says, "against". Contravene, is like intervene, including "against". An aggressive intervention". Contradict is with the word "diction". Speaking against. Controvert and controversy are similar. "Against" a "position".

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