Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.

Language Post #4: “Ensure” versus “Insure” versus “Assure”

Certain words – no matter how hard editors or other language mavens may try – will always cause confusion because they are different from, but closely related to, words with similar meanings. Most of the time, this problem occurs in pairs: “comprise” versus “compose,” “imply” versus “infer“, and so on. But today, we’re going to tackle something a little different, and instead focus not on a pair, but on a trio of words that cause confusion: “assure,” “insure” and “ensure.” First off, the definitions, all provided by the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

assure (verb)
1. To inform positively, as to remove doubt: assured us that the train would be on time.
2. To cause to feel sure: assured her of his devotion.
3. To give confidence to; reassure.
4. To make certain; ensure: “Nothing in history assures the success of our civilization” (Herbert J. Muller).
5. To make safe or secure.
6. Chiefly British To insure, as against loss.

ensure (verb)
To make sure or certain; insure: Our precautions ensured our safety. See Usage Note for assure (above).

insure (verb)
a. To provide or arrange insurance for: a company that insures homeowners and businesses.
b. To acquire or have insurance for: insured herself against losses; insured his car for theft.
2. To make sure, certain, or secure. See Usage Note for assure (above).

To buy or sell insurance.

On the surface, all three of these words have a similar concept at heart: that of safety, reinforcement, and protection. And why not? All three words are derived from the Latin word “securus,” meaning “safe” or “secure.” Furthermore, American Heritage 4 says that “assure” can be used interchangeably with the other two words, and even that “insure” can  be used interchangeably with “ensure.”

So what are the differences? They’re mainly ones of nuance. To me, the word “assure” evokes the idea of psychological security, as outlined in the first three definitions of “assure” that were listed above:

  • You can rest assured that Mighty Mouse will come to save the day
  • Laurie assured me that she had everything under control

As a side note, I find it interesting that the definition above states that “assure” and “reassure” mean the same thing, because then it seems that my dictionary is inconsistent. American Heritage 4 has this to say about “reassure”:

re·as·sure (verb)
tr.v. re·as·sured, re·as·sur·ing, re·as·sures
1. To restore confidence to.
2. To assure again.
3. To reinsure.

If we take these definitions at face value, “assure” means “to reassure,” which means “to assure again” – which means that “to assure” means “to assure again.” Maybe I’m reading everything wrong, but isn’t this rather tautological? Shouldn’t dictionaries try to guard against such things?

No matter – onwards we go!

If “assure” implies psychological security, then “insure” implies financial or economic security. Buying life insurance or home insurance means putting an economic safeguard in place if your house burns down, or if you die: your family gets some sort of financial compensation for bad things happening.

Finally, if “assure” relates to psychological security, and “insure” relates to financial security, what does “ensure” relate to? I feel pretty comfortable saying that “ensure” relates to most other tangible and intangible forms of security:

  • Please ensure that your seat belt is buckled during take-off and landing
  • Loretta, by agreeing to be my child’s babysitter, you ensure that my child will be safe while I’m at work
  • We must ensure that the important company report is delivered to Mr. Calhoun by Tuesday

So, there we have it. There are other websites you can visit to get a better handle on this particular issue; I highly recommend Grammar Girl if you’re looking for an explanation that is more compact.

Modifiers: they only want to help!

A few days ago when I was browsing The Economist online (I know it sounds odd, bear with me!), an advertisement caught my attention:

Champagne only comes from Champagne.

It turns out that the ad promotes the proper labelling of wine so that only those wines coming from the Champagne region of France can be given the appellation “Champagne.” Fair enough. I can understand why they chose to phrase the ad in this way: it sounds mysterious, or at least somewhat cryptic, at first glance. Plus, it’s short. I’m sure that the copy writers behind this ad  calculated the word order and repetition for maximum impact. Whatever the intention of the ad gurus though, it got the portion of my brain that is hypersensitive to language going: “it only comes from Champagne in the sense that it’s grown there, in comparison to being fermented, aged, or imported from there?”

It appears to me that this ad, whether intentionally or not, has fallen victim to one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the English language: misplaced modifiers. In particular, the word “only” is a very thorny modifier capable of completely altering a sentence’s meaning when placed in front of the wrong word. My favourite example of this is one I culled from an old edition of Reader’s Digest when I was but a mere lass:

He told her that he loved her.

Now, take that sentence and see how the meaning changes when the word “only” is inserted into the text in varying locations.

  • Only he told her that he loved her.
  • He only told her that he loved her.
  • He told only her that he loved her.
  • He told her only that he loved her.
  • He told her that only he loved her.
  • He told her that he only loved her.
  • He told her that he loved only her.
  • He told her that he loved her only.

Obviously, all of these sentences are grammatically correct, but each sentence conveys an entirely different impression about the relationship between Him and Her. For example, let’s look at the two sentences where “only” precedes the word “he.” Although the “only he” word order is the same between the two sentences, the writer could be saying respectively that 1) both He and many others love Her, but that He was the only one brave enough to tell Her so, or 2) He the only one who loves Her, and no one else. How confusing if you happen to misread it!

Being sloppy with your modifiers can only lead to pain. Besides sounding odd by having such a distinctive word repeat itself so soon, the ad’s placement of “only” causes ambiguity: what if there are other things that happen to Champagne (the wine) when located in Champagne (the region)? Besides, what do they mean by Champagne “coming” from Champagne? Do they mean the growth and harvest of the vine? The pressing of the grape? The fermentation process? The bottling and corking process?

I can think of no way to rearrange this sentence without making it longer and uglier, so I applaud the writers behind this for keeping it short. But it still irks the hell out of me.

Update: I revised and republished this post on LinkedIn Pulse in 2015.