The Triple Threat of ‘Sures’

By Maeve Maddox

Brad Stolzer wonders about ensure and insure:

Am I the only one who struggles with these?

Not at all. And while we’re at ensure/insure, let’s throw in assure.

All three words are close in origin and meaning.

Both assure and ensure came into English in the late 1300s, assure from Old French asseurer, “to reassure, calm, protect, to render sure,” and ensure from Anglo-French enseurer, “to make sure.” The word insure appeared about 1440 as a variant of ensure. It took on the sense of “to make safe against loss by payment of premiums” in 1635. Before that, assure had that meaning.

In modern usage, insure has won out as the word that has to do with compensation for financial loss. The violinist insured his hands with Lloyd’s. This use of insure applies on both sides of the Atlantic.

The confusion that arises with insure vs ensure stems mainly from another definition: “to make certain that (something) will occur.” For example: We wish to ensure the safety of our passengers. Some speakers of American English would use the spelling “insure” in this context, but others might, like speakers of British English, write “ensure.”

The AP Stylebook offers these guidelines:

Use ensure to mean guarantee: Steps were taken to ensure accuracy.

Use insure for references to insurance: The policy insures his life.

According to the Chicago Manual of Style, “we ensure events and insure things. But we assure people that their concerns are being addressed.”

Sources:

The Associated Press Stylebook
The Chicago Manual of Style
The Online Etymology Dictionary
The Oxford English Dictionary
The Penguin Writer’s Manual

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6 Responses to “The Triple Threat of ‘Sures’”

  • Emma

    I’d not realised that it’s seen as OK to use “insure” where I’d expect, as a British English speaker to use “ensure”. I’ll be more tolerant in the future – especially when it’s international students using it, as they may have learnt US English.

  • Cynthia Price

    I enjoyed this post. I’d like to see it taken a step further. I and others stuggle with how to avoid the word “ensure.” It seems there should be a way to write the sentence more concretely, but we always come back to statements such as “We ensure the safety of the children.” Or this, “We ensure that they are on the right path for future growth.”

    Any suggestions would be appreciated.

  • Eric C

    Grammar girl has a great podcast on these tricky words.

  • David

    I recently corrected an Insurance Salesman friend of mine for using the word ‘insure’ in what I claimed was an ‘ensure’ use. A debate ensued, and when he defined ‘insure’ as an action taken related to an anticipated, undesired conclusion, I decided I needed to be more flexible.

  • Alan

    As a Brit who writes for an American audience I find these postings fascinating.

    Until this post I to had no idea that insure and ensure could have the same meaning in American English. I always assumed such usage was an error.

    On this side of the pond there is not much confusion about how to use insure, ensure and assure – so was initially surprised by the post – but now it all makes sense.

  • Andy Knoedler

    I was puzzled when living in the UK to hear the word “assurance” used in contexts where I wouild use “insurance”. Here is the Oxford University Press’ definition of “assurance”:

    • noun 1 a positive declaration intended to give confidence. 2 confidence or certainty in one’s own abilities. 3 chiefly Brit. life insurance.

    — USAGE In the context of life insurance, a technical distinction is made between assurance and insurance. Assurance is used of policies under whose terms a payment is guaranteed, either after a fixed term or on the death of the insured person; insurance is the general term, and is used in particular of policies under whose terms a payment would be made only in certain circumstances (e.g. accident or death within a limited period).

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