Conclusive or anecdotal? Talking about evidence and proof.

a child dressed as a detective using a magnifying glass to examine footprints
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by Liz Walter

The English philosopher George Henry Lewes said ‘We must not assume that which is incapable of proof.’ Certainly, proof and evidence have an important role in many areas of our lives, so it is not surprising that there is a lot of vocabulary related to these concepts.

I will start with two nice collocations. If someone uncovers evidence, they find it, and if they establish the truth, they work out what is really true:

Police have uncovered new evidence that links Foster to the crime.

We are trying to establish the truth about their relationship.

The most obvious area where proof is necessary is in crime and policing. Witnesses (people who saw what happened) can help police solve a crime. We also use the word witness for someone who says what they know about something in a court. The collocation call a witness means to ask them to give their evidence. We sometimes refer to the formal statement of a witness as their testimony:

Police are appealing for witnesses to the crash.

She was called as a witness when the case came to court.

It was Walker’s testimony that convicted him.

If someone has an alibi, they can prove that they were in a different place when a crime happened. A cast-iron alibi is very strong and cannot be disproved:

He had a cast-iron alibi because he was in a TV recording studio at the time.

There are lots of useful verbs connected with proof. For example, corroborate, confirm, verify and bear out all mean to add new proof to existing evidence:

Fingerprints taken from the room appear to corroborate their account.

The fact that her passport is missing bears out our theory that she has gone abroad.

On the other hand, if you refute or disprove a statement or a theory, you prove that it is incorrect, while if you discredit someone’s evidence, you make people think that it isn’t true:

They used CCTV images to refute the claim that the door was left open.

Photos of Watts with known criminals were used to discredit her evidence.

If you say that evidence you gave was untrue, you retract or withdraw it:

He later retracted his statement, saying he had been mistaken.

There are also lots of useful adjectives to describe the amount and reliability of evidence. Very strong evidence is robust, conclusive, definitive, irrefutable or incontrovertible. Empirical evidence is based on real observations or experiments, while circumstantial evidence makes you think something is true but doesn’t prove it and anecdotal evidence is based on someone’s experience rather than on facts that can be checked:

We need robust evidence about pollution levels.

The police can’t convict him on circumstantial evidence.

There’s lots of anecdotal evidence about the lack of school places.

I hope these words are useful. One thing that is beyond doubt (definitely true) is that your English will improve if you learn them!

12 thoughts on “Conclusive or anecdotal? Talking about evidence and proof.

    1. Liz Walter

      Thanks, mossy. They are certainly good alternatives. Our corpus (collection of many millions of words of speech and writing) does show that ‘cast-iron’ is by far the most common collocation, so if students of English want to learn just one, that would be the one to go for.

  1. Summer

    This is really helpful. Thanks a lot! Can you please do one about destiny and fate related expressions? I’d love to learn some useful and interesting phrases about that.

  2. Tatiana Balandina

    Thank you, Liz! I always enjoy reading your posts, This one seems to be my favourite. I started reading English books in the original with reading Agatha Christie’s novels. I had learnt English court terminology before I did it in Russian.

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