Usage Wars: "Ensure," "Insure," "Assure"

What’s your take on those three? Are they synonymous? Does each have a distinct meaning?

I’ll be honest–I don’t know where I stand.

I’m fine with ensure and insure being fully interchangeable–after all, they’re both just spelling variants of a French word. But I’m also fine with ensure meaning “to make certain” and insure meaning “take out an insurance policy.” It just makes sense in this age of comprehensive coverage.

I like to think that we’re watching the end stages of a language change that differentiates the two, but that’s a long game and the outcome is… well… unsure.

For assure, I separate it from the other two. To me, it always means “give confidence.”

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I generally think of it as:

  • Ensure - to guarantee something happens
  • Insure - what insurance companies do, has to do with exchanging money as protection
  • Assure - makes me think of reassure? Sort of a comforting/giving confidence meaning
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There are occasions where all three seem to fit.

Consider: We use this process to __________ quality.

They’re doing it to guarantee quality.
They’re doing it to protect the product from spoilage or whatever.
They’re doing it to give confidence to the consumer.

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The three have the separate meanings as @Rose_Hill put them. Your example works as a sentence where you swap out one word to mean something different, but I don’t think that has anything to do with arguing the meaning. All of them might generally be defined as “making sure” of something, but the difference of guaranteeing it will happen, covering with a policy, or removing doubts? I do not find it very subtle a difference.

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But ensure and insure are, now and historically, frequently used interchangeably. This includes such authorities as The New York Times, so it’s not simply a matter of word confusion.

I can see that, but I’ve also seen high distributed papers with spelling errors and incorrect usages of words (that can’t be debated, as opposed to those where the usage could be correct). When you see the rise and fall of a usage, I wonder, but otherwise I do wonder if it is confusion.

I can accept that someone would use them interchangeably, but I know if I was editing for someone it wouldn’t come to mind. I would immediately correct it dependent on the context.

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In this case, it was NYT’s official policy for decades.

As would I. I would at least note them to find out if that’s really what they meant.

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I’m curious to hear the insure-assure distinction from our UK members. Is (or was) assurance used where USAians would use insurance, as in He bought a life insurance policy?

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