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.)