Assure—I Mean, Ensure—Good Writing

By Mark Nichol

Once upon a time, professional and amateur writers alike could count on books and publications to help guide them in writing clearly, coherently, and concisely. They knew that when they opened a book, a magazine, or a newspaper, they could generally be assured that they would find carefully crafted prose that adhered to principles of proper grammar, syntax, and usage and would not only enhance comprehension of the content but also serve as a model for their own effective writing.

Unfortunately, that assurance has long since ceased to exist across the board. Over the last quarter-century, socioeconomic forces have eviscerated the editorial infrastructure in the publishing world. Into the late twentieth century, at least most book publishers were assiduous in making sure not only that fiction and nonfiction narratives were well constructed but also that attention was paid to the mechanics of sentence structure. In the periodical world, veteran magazine and newspaper editors passed their skills in telling stories (and finessing them down to the detail of using just the right punctuation for the job with each keystroke) to younger editorial staff members, preserving a tradition of editorial excellence even for niche magazines and small-town papers.

Not every publication adhered to such high standards, of course, and objectivity was not always maintained (or sought), but readers usually could count, at least, on being exposed to good, clean writing.

Those standards have now eroded, thanks in large part to budget cuts in editorial departments and a deterioration in the informal newsroom mentor-protégé tradition, in addition to a growing indifference in our society to excellent writing. Some publications keep the bar high, but the general readership is exposed to much mediocre writing in print and online media alike, and sloppy prose from one writer infects other writers like a virus, passing on clichés, errors, and poor habits.

One recent example stood out for me—perhaps a persnickety detail, but symptomatic of an erosion of precision in usage that encourages lazy writing. In a local metropolitan newspaper, an editorial about the crisis of homelessness misused assured not once, not twice, but thrice:

1. The city needs to evaluate and track people in homeless programs to assure that they are put in the most suitable settings.

2. San Francisco needs to work together with Oakland and San Jose, which are experiencing their own struggles with homelessness, to assure that they are not merely shifting the burden to one another.

3. It would be a colossal waste of money to make the necessary investments in supportive housing and other services without a commensurate commitment to assure that the people who are offered this array of assistance are no longer afforded the option to flout the law with impunity.

Careful writers know that assurance does not occur in isolation; it is given. (One would say, for example, “I assured them that they are not merely shifting the burden to one another.”) The proper word for this context is ensure. (Insure, meanwhile, is best confined to matters of indemnity.)

In popular usage, these words are used interchangeably, and historically, they have not always been employed distinctly even by more erudite writers, but preserving such distinctions helps us maintain a rich, diverse language. I’m all for relaxed, flexible usage in in appropriate contexts, but maintaining a firewall between ensure, insure, and assure, or between eager and anxious or between enormity and enormousness, or any such fraternal twins or triplets, helps writers produce and readers consume high-quality prose.

If so many book and periodical (and online) publishers have abandoned their traditional role as standard-bearers for good writing, where does the developing writer (read: every writer) go for guidance? Some publishers still strive to deliver well-written content, and many corporate and organizational websites are impressively edited, but ultimately, the careful writer will consult writing guides such as this site and the many excellent writing manuals available in print and sometimes online. (Search for “book reviews” on DailyWritingTips.com for recommendations—or cautions.)

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9 Responses to “Assure—I Mean, Ensure—Good Writing”

  • Katherine Krige

    While I cannot claim to be perfect, I feel your pain Mark. I strive to create the best, most concise and accurate prose I can in writing, and every time I come across typos, grammatical mistakes or flagrant misuse of the English language, it saddens me.

    Keep reminding us of the pitfalls along the way, so that as writers we can do our best to avoid them. Thanks

  • Thebluebird11

    I don’t know why some people have problems with certain words and mix them up, and others don’t. For example, I’ve never had an issue with affect and effect. By the same token, I’ve never had an issue with assure, ensure and insure. They are spelled differently and have different meanings even though they sound alike. Word pairs like eager and anxious make me think of nauseous and nauseated. They’re similar but not the same, but people interchange them so often that the line of distinction between them has been nearly erased. Lake publications with ongoing high standards for editorial work, some people will continue to maintain the distinctions between these words; others will not.
    My steadfast maintenance of the distinction between eager and anxious makes me feel like a fish swimming against the stream. In the medical field, people will say things like, “The patient is anxious to go home,” or “The patient is anxious to have the surgery.” They may be anxious about going home or anxious about having surgery, but they are otherwise eager to go home or eager to have the surgery. Or not. Thanks for the post and let’s hope some publications, websites and writers continue to maintain high standards.

  • JW Hall

    In College, I had a Chem Professor who marked down my papers for grammatical errors. The answers were correct, but small errors in punctuation + run on sentences continued to cost me 20% of my grade. I gathered up a mix of 10 mainstream newspapers + magazines and highlighted, several times, the same ‘offending’ writing practices. After submitting them to him, his critique’s ceased. and my grades rose, However, he did not retroactively addend, my past works. I now work as a Writer(adding historical context + converting technical material into ‘layman’s’ terms), relying on my Editors to clean up my work to their standards. I am still not perfect, but I strive to learn something new every day. Thank you.

  • venqax

    Insure/ensure confusion is especially common, with “insure” doing the double duty most often. I think, “…a growing indifference in our society to excellent writing” pretty much sums it up. Too few people, even self-proclaimed “professional” writers, care at all about this kind of thing anymore. As a result, the general public doesn’t care– or know– either. Of course indifference to good language it just one small piece of a much bigger problem. Standards of any kind and about any thing, are under attack everywhere. Let’s not forget the most egregious mismot of all, represented by, “Would you itch my back?” I have seen it, without legitmating context of any kind, in “professional” writing and heard it in “educated” speech multiple times.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Amen, amen, amen, Mr. Nichol:
    “The general readership is exposed to much mediocre writing in print and online media alike, and sloppy prose from one writer infects other writers like a virus, passing on clichés, errors, and poor habits.”

    Yes, they are infectious, and perhaps worse than viruses! What comes to my mind are vicious venomous Venezuelan pit vipers!

  • Dale A. Wood

    Hello: Thebluebird11 has made one simple keystroke error in her note that made something quite humorous, and that is the only reason why I am even mentioning it. (Humor is a necessity of life to me.)
    “Lake publications … the distinction between ‘eager’ and ‘anxious’ makes me feel like a fish swimming against the stream.”
    It was just the proximity between “Lake publications” and “fish swimming against the stream,’ that gave me a chuckle.

  • Dale A. Wood

    @venqax: You have made an excellent remark. Thank you.
    In case anyone is interested in looking it up and reading about it, there are some differences between the uses of “insure” and “ensure” in American English and the British English of the Commonwealth. “Insure” is much more common in American English (in all shades of meaning) than it is in that other kind of English.
    When it comes to Canadian English, my guess is that its usage falls somewhere in between the American way and the British way. There is the fact that American English and Canadian English are so tightly bound together by telecommunications, popular songs, and book, magazine, and newspaper publications.

  • Thebluebird11

    @DAW: yes, sorry about the typo but if it made you chuckle then that’s ok. Unfortunately there is no way to edit comments on this website 🙁 so I am publicly shamed!

  • Liz Tucker

    It’s so frustrating to see words with clear, separate meanings being used as synonyms. There is little point in having these seperate words if they are going to be used interchangeably.

    I always find it very annoying when disinterested and uninterested are both used to mean a lack of interest., rather than using disinterested to mean independent.

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