Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Grammar Mavens

IWW administrator and IWW Blog tender Carter Jefferson likes to rummage amongst the pages of various grammar texts, and he has a counterpart in the political columnist James J. Kilpatrick.

Carter speaks occasionally to the IWW's Writing list. Kilpatrick's column can be found, among other places, on Yahoo's Opinion page.

Mr. Kilpatrick corrected me when he opened a session of his Court of Peeves, Crotchets & Irks. My own was the use of the word ensure. I believed that ensure existed merely as the lifted pinky on the tea cup of language. I complained to Kilpatrick the word had no value other than pretension, that any instance where a person might be eager to use ensure when either insure or assure would be a better fit.

Here is Kilpatrick's reply ...

Many thanks for your inquiry about "insure" and "ensure." I've written about the distinction a couple of times, but perhaps not lately. In many contexts the distinction is too slim to bother with. Strictly speaking, we ought to reserve "insure" for purely financial contexts. We insure against loss. We sign up for the derivative noun "insurance." We buy life "insurance" policies that pay off in money. For everything else, the better choice is probably "ensure." Their marriage began well, "But his heavy drinking soon ensured its collapse."

If you run across interesting examples of doubtful usage, please pass along the dated citations.

Cordially James J. Kilpatrick.


I was certain ensure existed simply to allow Emily Post and Henry James to avoid writing about the mercantile classes, but I was wrong.

I'm often wrong. Sometimes for years. Or decades. As when I reversed the references of "each other" and "one another."

1 comment:

Carter said...

Do not despair, Gary. Everybody makes mistakes, even me. I can never spell "language" right, but the spellchecker knows.

Thank you for the Kilpatrick samples. I wish he were syndicated in Boston.

But what is it with these political reporters? The biggest name in the public language racket right now is William Safire, the retired conservative (but not stupid) political writer for the NYTimes. His column appears every Sunday in the Times Magazine, and it's usually worth looking at. This week's is on hip-hop
language: http://tinyurl.com/3bsuqx

Carter

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