Pet peeve: insure vs. ensure

I have been very restrained, and have managed to endure the last few months with no additions to my pet peeve collection. You may be thinking, “how did he ever make it through the last few months of election coverage and financial meltdowns without any pet peeve updates?” and that is a fine question. The short version is that I have dozens of them, but I could not figure out how to give voice to them while remaining civil enough to post, so they had to find other, saltier venues.

So I am turning to a simpler source of frustration – the incredibly widespread misuse of the word insure when people mean ensure. Yes, I know there is an assure issue, too, but the insure-when-you-mean-ensure is the one that bugs me.

Some of my language peeves are idiosyncratic, I know this. Things like my choice to use the word data as a plural form, and to use datum as the singular, even though the world has decided to treat data as a singular and condemn datum to oblivion. My archaic usage makes sense, but I am the first to realize it is out of step with common usage, so I bite my tongue and leave well enough alone.

Not so with the ensure/insure confusion. Briefly, here are definitions of the words at issue:

insure, v.tr., -sured, -sur·ing, -sures.

    1. To provide or arrange insurance for: a company that insures homeowners and businesses.
    2. To acquire or have insurance for: insured herself against losses; insured his car for theft.
  1. To make sure, certain, or secure.

ensure, tr.v., -sured, -sur·ing, -sures.

To make sure or certain; insure: Our precautions ensured our safety

Both of the above definitions point to a usage note under the entry for assure, which reads:

Assure, ensure, and insure all mean “to make secure or certain.” Only assure is used with reference to a person in the sense of “to set the mind at rest”: assured the leader of his loyalty. Although ensure and insure are generally interchangeable, only insure is now widely used in American English in the commercial sense of “to guarantee persons or property against risk.”

Hateful, moronic poppycock! Unconscionable tripe! Generally interchangeable!? Inconceivable.

Let’s see what others say on this pivotal issue…

Back in February, Minnesota Public Radio noted: When talking about insure and ensure, the word assure inevitably enters the mix. Fowler’s Modern English Usage says that assure, ensure and insure ‘have intersecting paths in contexts involving aspects of certainty, assuredness and security.’

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston addressed this head on in August here. I agree with her distinctions exactly, and admire her steely discipline not to fall for the “generally interchangeable” hoo-hah.

August must have been a big month for this, as the Grammar Girl tackled it as well. Amazingly, they come to the same conclusions as Lynn above, and also avoid any linguistic relativism. Bravo.

If you poke about in Google on this topic, the top hit comes from Yourdictionary.com, and their entry is pretty good. They are on the slippery interchangeable slope though, but they do note that the Associated Press disagrees with their cavalier, trendy usage. Good for the AP.

I could go on and beat this horse further, but I will restrain myself and leave it at that. I assure you this is not my last grammar gripe – the rampant misuse of English today ensures it.

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3 Comments on “Pet peeve: insure vs. ensure”

  1. crswartz Says:

    I once purchased a life cover policy from an “Assurance” company in England. Most of the companies were “insurance” but a few were “assurance”.

  2. mollykmo Says:

    Dude, is there a loophole not included in my technical manual or do you misuse a comma in the first sentence of a grammatical pet peeve blog? You need more than a conjunction to avoid a comma splice. Writer, please.

  3. psrandol Says:

    Thanks for this. It was my first instinct to use “ensure” for some copy I wrote, but wanted to double check. I have another pet peeve-the use of the word “importantly”-drives me CRAZY!! Am I nuts or am I correct that this is NOT a word, and what people really mean is “And most IMPORTANT…”

    And another-why are so many people ill informed about the usage of “me” and “myself”? Is grammar not taught anymore?


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