Thursday, June 4, 2009

Insure vs. Ensure

Ah, the subtleties of the English language. (Or, Where one letter makes a small difference.) 

Editing a manuscript yesterday, I found the author using "insure" and "ensure." Most style guides make the distinction between the two words. For example, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says,
Insure means buy or issue insurance: She insured her camera against theft. 
Ensure means guarantee or make safe: The hit ensured a Yankee victory.
Knowing this distinction, I was going to change "insure" to "ensure" in the following sentence: "If you [a flower] produce a scent that attracts only the males of one particular species of bee, you can insure that your pollen will end up precisely where you want it." It's not as though the flower is taking out an insurance policy on its pollen. 

Then, two paragraphs below, the author used "ensure": "Yet their small numbers ensure their survival." The author clearly was making a distinction between the two words. Did he know something I didn't? 

Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines ensure as "to make sure, certain, or safe"; and insure as "1: to provide or obtain insurance on or for; 2: to make certain especially by taking necessary measures and precautions." For usage, it says: 
ensure and insure are interchangeable in many contexts where they indicate the making certain or inevitable of an outcome, but ensure may imply a virtual guarantee <ensured the safety of the refugees>, while insure sometimes stresses the taking of necessary measures beforehand <insure the success of the party>
The author seemed to be following the usage in Webster's, and not the NYT guide. I decided to keep his original language, even though I prefer to make the insure-as-insurance distinction. It blurs the line, but then there are so few clear lines in word usage. 

42 comments:

  1. thanks! I just had this very question while editing my own work, and your analysis was nicely concise and helpful.

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  2. thank you. I actually needed this info for a document I am editing at work, so your post was very helpful.

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  3. Your very welcome. This is a very popular post, and I'm glad to hear it's useful!

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  4. I know it's just a slip but thought you'd want to know that you typed "you're" as "your" above.

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  5. Thanks for the correction; I rely on the kindness of strangers. Unfortunately, I can't edit the comment. How frustrating.

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  6. I've always tended to think of "ensure" as a claim, and "insure" as a bet. If I take steps to ENSURE your car doesn't get stolen, I'm claiming it will never happen (and if I turn out to be wrong, then I was just wrong). But if I take steps to INSURE your car, I'm betting some sum of money (or some other form of compensation) that it won't. For a car, the difference hardly matters. But when a price is hard to set, the difference becomes important: I'd much rather someone ensure my safety than insure it -- even if they fail, it seems like they cared more and tried harder. "Insure" implies that you have an acceptable backup plan if your original goal fails. The thing about the bee pollen could probably go either way, depending on the context.

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  7. Thanks for the interesting and insightful comment. Great to hear from you!

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  8. how much do you charge per hour for your editing services?

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  9. My rates for freelance editing vary depending on the project. For more details, feel free to email me at david@wordsbetween.com, and please include details about your project.
    Thanks!

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  10. If you're looking for information on freelance copyediting rates, the Editorial Freelancers Association has a list of rates available at:

    http://www.the-efa.org/res/rates.php

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  11. Here is a classical example:

    "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, esablish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, [...]"

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  12. Great example, Anon. Thanks for noting it!

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  13. It's very comforting to know that people still exist who actually care about words, and about the ways they are (and should be) used. Many thanks for the initial entry and all the comments.

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  14. Websters is wrong! They are certainly not interchangeable. Full marks to the NYT and detention for Websters ;)

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  15. Perhaps the Founding Fathers meant "act as insurers for domestic tranquility" rather than make it certain (?)

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  16. This was another Anonymous by the way.

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  17. These two words confused me this morning. I searched. Then Google pointed me to here. Nice explanation! It helps. Thanks.

    Now I can ensure that my insurance insures me against accidents. :)

    Joe

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  18. did the author make the right call here?

    Paul Pierce made his second major commitment of the summer, marrying his fiancee Julie Landrum in an oceanfront ceremony in California just a week after officially signing a four-year, $61 million deal that will likely ensure that he retires as a Celtic. The couple's daughter Prianna Lee was the flower girl. Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Doc Rivers were in attendance.

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  19. Hi Anon, looks to me that "ensure" is the correct usage here. The four-year deal looks to be his last contract as a pro player; it doesn't insure that it's his last contract, though.

    And JoeNo1, thanks for the kind words. I'm glad this post was useful.

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  20. This blog entry was the 1st Google hit on my search on "insure vs. ensure", and I appreciate your brevity & concise editorializing!

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  21. THANK YOU! This has been the most helpful breakdown of ensure vs. insure.

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  22. Awesome post! Thanks for the great advice!

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  23. I'm still unsure. I can't ensure that I'll have the correct use of insure. I guess I'm insecure.

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  24. DDD, you crack me up! Thanks for the great comment.

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  25. I also found this blog very useful. There are many commonly used English words that I seem to always struggle with. English just seems to have too many subtle rules! Thank you for your distinction.

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  26. I assure you that you explanation ensures that your reputation with me is insured.

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  27. In other words, ya done good!

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  28. Please rest assured that you are insured to ensure the financial health of your family in the event of an untimely accident...

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  29. Aren't words wonderful...

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  30. A third anonymous. And thanks to all of you for both the clarification and the entertainment and to David for staring this. My first hit in my search also...

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  31. Very good post and great blog! I'm an attorney and former Law Review editor, so I appreciate proper English!

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  32. Thanks for the nice comments and feedback. Glad to hear this is helpful--and proper English!

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  33. In reference to the Founding Fathers, I remember reading in a style manual once that the use of "insure" was considered correct at the time. Thus the Founding Fathers didn't have this distinction to worry about. However, as language does, customary usage evolved over time and now the correct usage would be "ensure". Because we hold the document with such reverence and importance, it should not be changed. However, if it were written today, it would be incorrect. I wish I could remember the style manual so I could provide a citation.

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  34. Do your services include copy editing dissertations?

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  35. Thanks for asking. I wish I had time for freelance projects, but I've got my hands full with a full-time job. I recommend you check with the journalism department at your university. They may have a list of freelance copy editors.
    Good luck!

    Anon JUNE 13, thanks for the interesting point on our Founding Fathers. I hadn't thought of that.

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  36. Been reading court cases lately where the Supreme Court of the U.S. even fails to make the distinction. (in law school)

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  37. hi all..
    However, if it were written today, it would be incorrect, i love it's info cool!!!

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  38. Thanks for this. I'm currently reading 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne and 'insure' kept popping up when I thought it should be 'ensure'.

    I was wondering if maybe I was wrong as the book came from the 1800's (a time when people seemed to have some respect for languages) and appears to be expertly translated.

    Well now I know. Thanks WBtS!

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  39. As the author of an aphorism using "insuring" in the Webster's "to make certain especially by taking necessary measures and precautions" sense, I chose that spelling precisely because this was the definition closest to the meaning I intended. Since my aphorism went viral, I have faced the occasional reprove from those who think I should've used "ensuring." But Webster's still lists my definition and it's still the one closest to my meaning, so I stand by my usage and am annoyed to see the occasional citation that changes the spelling.

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  40. Hi Anon, congratulations on your usage in Webster's! I'm impressed. You should stick to your usage. It's certainly not wrong, and you obviously make a good case for insuring.

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