Proof vs. Evidence

I'm spending a lot of time grading literary analysis essays these days. In fact, at this very moment, I am avoiding the grading of literary analysis essays by writing this blog post. 

But I felt the need to do so because I keep reading sentences like this:

  • Beowulf's frequent boasting is proof of his incredible pride. 
  • These examples prove that Gatsby was indeed a tragic hero.
  • This proves that Dante wasn't trying to literally describe hell. 

In each of these examples, proof or prove is the wrong word. In fact, I'm not sure if a literary analysis paper has ever proved anything. Was Beowulf proud? Was Gatsby a tragic hero? Was Dante being allegorical? Sure. Probably. I don't know. These are subjective questions that can only be answered by speculation based on evidence. 

A writer of literary analysis is never asked to prove anything. They are asked to give evidence to support their claims. There's a difference. Proof requires evidence, but not all evidence constitutes proof. 

Proof is a fact that demonstrates something to be real or true. Evidence is information that might lead one to believe something to be real or true. Proof is final and conclusive. Evidence is tentative. 

A fingerprint on a gun is evidence of someone's guilt. If the murder suspect also had motive and opportunity, that's more evidence. If the investigators can put together enough evidence, they will have proof of his guilt. 

But remember, in literary writing, there's no actual murderer to be found. Literary analysis is inductive, not deductive. In a sense, you can never really prove a literary thesis. You can only provide evidence. You can only hope to show your argument to be reasonable and likely.

That's why writers of literary essays should just about always substitute the word evidence for proof. When it comes to the verb form, there are lots of options for replacing prove: indicate, demonstrate, argue, illustrate, suggest, etc. 

Relax, young literary analysts. You have nothing to prove. Literally.