Misusing the verb ‘to ensure’

2009-02-01

in Politics, Rants, Writing

Spoon in guacamole

I think ‘ensure’ might be one of the most misused words in the English language. At least 90% of the time I see it used, it is being seriously misapplied. Cariboo altering their migration patterns in response to climate change are not ‘ensuring’ their survival. At best, the behaviour makes their survival more likely. Similarly, new laws cannot ensure that children will be protected from sexual predators. At best, they will make such occurrences less frequent. Military and police power can never ensure an end to terrorism.

In short, the verb ‘to ensure’ should only be used in situations where genuine certainty is being produced. Generally, this is only the case in matters that are strictly logical or those that are strictly empirical. For instance, the fact that all bats are mammals ensures that there are no non-mammal bats. Similarly, the fact that matter attracts other matter ensures that very massive bodies will be roughly spherical. In terms of actions, those where something is ‘ensured’ are those where an inescapable cause-and-effect relationship exists: the failure of the O-ring on the Space Shuttle Challenger ensured that the vehicle would fail catastrophically. Virtually nothing in politics is certain and, as such, political pledges to ‘ensure’ things are usually misleading or empty.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan February 1, 2009 at 9:54 am

There is no certainty in the empirical. There is only “as if” certainty in the empirical when we stop actually talking about data and observation, and start talking about theory which we take as a priori to the gathering of data.\

But this is not the issue. First of all, the OED has an entry for ‘ensure’ as an adjective, which means something like “to be in a state of security”. To be ensure means to be safe – so, if to ensure meant to do the activity which brings about the state the adjective can describe, then the verb would mean something like “to put into a state of security”.

The verb is considered a derivative of ‘assure’ – to assure – to render someone safe or secure from attack or danger. To make safe from or against risks. The word is also related to ‘sure’ and to ‘secure’.

But, as for the word itself, as a verb, the contention you’ve made is that it applies only to situations of logical certainty. If we look at the OED, the first listings for ‘to ensure’ are from the 13th,14th and 15th centuries and they all concern making people mentally sure, to pledge faith, to pledge one’s credit, to tell someone confidently, to warrant something to someone that x is a fact.

It’s also related to “insure”, and was sometimes used in that sense – to guarantee someone else’s security against your own, or the security of their possessions against your own.

In other words, ensuring is something people do, it doesn’t concern actual certainty but the perception of certainty – specifically, the claim of certainty made by one person towards another. This is not “logical” certainty, i.e. the kind of certainty you could not be wrong about. But rather, authoritative certainty – certainty you are willing to take a stand on, to look like an idiot if you turn out wrong, and in some situations, sacrifice your life or possessions. It’s much easier to see the similarities between ‘to ensure’, ‘to assure’ and ‘to insure’ than the differences.

Emily February 1, 2009 at 3:52 pm

Washington State Uni seems to have a helpful and extensive overview of commonly misused English words: http://wsu.edu/~brians/errors/errors.html#i

“To “assure” a person of something is to make him or her confident of it. According to Associated Press style, to “ensure” that something happens is to make certain that it does, and to “insure” is to issue an insurance policy. Other authorities, however, consider “ensure” and “insure” interchangeable. To please conservatives, make the distinction. However, it is worth noting that in older usage these spellings were not clearly distinguished.”

I use ‘ensure’ as a measure of confidence in executing an action. “I’ll ensure that the paper is done by Friday.”

etc.

anon February 1, 2009 at 4:17 pm

he who claims certainty, lies.

Milan February 1, 2009 at 9:04 pm

Aren’t we letting the politicians off the hook if we say “To ‘ensure’ means what politicians think, not what the verb logically represents?”

anon February 2, 2009 at 12:27 am

On what authority do you declare the verb to logically represent anything? it seems from everything said above that “to ensure” is a human activity, which seeks to attempt to make a thing “certainly occur” – but of course every human attempt is flawed, so a human can never “perfectly ensure” anything. The fact the verb is related to “assure” and to “insure” emphasizes the imperfection of the certainty relation.

James December 12, 2009 at 10:40 pm

It’s amazing how easy it is to create a simple rule like this and make it appear as fact. There are major holes in the Assure vs Ensure rule described here and a growing number of other “writer” blogs. I can only assume this is because the described rule is simple to understand. Unfortunately, the English language is not and simple rules for English are generally flawed. “Assure” may be used as a substitute for ensure in many cases because of the implied “yourself” that follows. I personally use ensure wherever possible, but may wish to add character to a feature article by using “assure” instead and, yes, still remain grammatically correct.

Milan January 29, 2010 at 4:54 pm

I learned about another commonly misused word in The Wire. While you can evacuate a building, evacuating people means giving them an enema:

evacuate: “To empty, clear out the contents of (a vessel or receptacle). Chiefly in uses more or less technical: To empty (the stomach, bowels, or other bodily organ); to deplete (the body) by purging or vomiting (formerly also by bleeding, sudorifics, etc.); to exhaust (of air).”

. September 28, 2010 at 7:49 pm

No, Double Hull Tankers Do Not Ensure ‘Total Safety’

Contrary to industry reassurances, Vancouver faces increasing risks of oil spill.

By Mitch Anderson, Yesterday, TheTyee.ca

Is it safe? That was the question posed last July when Mayor Gregor Robertson convened a special meeting of Vancouver city council to discuss increased oil tanker traffic through the treacherous waters of Burrard Inlet.

Vancouver has quietly become a major oil port, as the capacity of the Kinder Morgan pipeline from Alberta to Burnaby has recently been scaled up to 300,000 barrels per day. Every week several oil tankers squeeze through Second Narrows at the highest tides with less than two metres of water under the keel. These shipments have doubled over the last two years.

At the July meeting, Captain Stephen Brown of the B.C. Chamber of Shipping assured the city that these transits were happening in “total safety” and that “We have yet to have a pollution incident from a double hull tanker.”

Since 1993, an international agreement requires that all new tankers have a double-hulled design. Only about 50 single-hulled tankers exist in the world and none are allowed in North American waters. But is it true that there has never been a pollution incident from a double hull tanker? Hardly.

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