Happy new year, writerly readers! And what better way to kick off a bright future than by gorging ourselves on grammary goodness. Okay, okay, let’s be honest—our gorging days are behind us. We are in the treadmill days now, and will be until bikini season. So we’ll lighten it up a bit and keep it to our usual grammar blippage with a discussion on what differentiates assure, ensure, and insure.
If you are confused about which of these verbs to use in what context, doubt not your mad grammar-ninja skillz. You are not alone. In fact, I am willing to bet that a significant percentage of people who think they know when to use each of these words correctly is actually incorrect. And it’s no wonder, really, since each of these words comes from the same Latin root word. They are very similar in meaning, and some folks even assert that they can be used interchangeably. Most grammarian sticklers, though, will ding you for using these words in the wrong context.
What the Heck Is Context?
Context is the meaning behind a group of words or sentences. If you “take something out of context,” then you’ve misinterpreted or misrepresented the intended meaning of a statement by taking it out of the larger situation that gave it its true meaning. This happens in politics and reality tv shows all the time. In this case, knowing when to use the proper version of this verb is all about the context of the statement in which it occurs.
“Assure” is the most touchy-feely of the three siblings. When you’re using the word “assure,” you’re almost always assuring a person of something, in other words, removing any doubt or anxiety about something. The most common usages I’ve run across are the phrases “I assure you that…” and “rest assured…”
“Rest assured that I will be planting my butt in front of the boob tube tonight at eight p.m. sharp to catch every ruby-red droplet of delicious melodrama oozing from The Vampire Diaries.”
“I assure you that Stephan is my favorite, despite Damon’s dark allure.”
In each of these examples, I am attempting to remove any doubt from my conversational partner’s mind about my feelings regarding The Vampire Diaries in general and Stephan in specific. (Note that I am merely using the above as an example—Katherine is actually my favorite.)
“Insure” is the most technical in meaning. When you’re “insuring” something, you’re actually arranging for compensation against the possible loss of that thing. There are some cases you’d use it not in terms of money, like if you were recording an illicit conversation to use as insurance against your conversational partner screwing you over. If he tries to out you to the feds, then you’ll use the recording to take him down with you. You’re providing yourself insurance against that possibility. Most often, though, someone will insure you against potential traffic accidents or loss of life or disability.
“Holy cats! You just ran over my moped with your monster truck! Tell me you’re insured!”
“I can insure you against loss of life, health, home, and fancy art, but I can’t insure your empty ketchup-bottle collection.”
The trick to remembering the correct version of this word for this particular meaning is to check the spelling against its more commonly used noun form—insurance. If you can stick an “ance” on the end and get “insurance” (as in health insurance), then you know that you’re implying the more technical insuring-something-against-disaster meaning.
“Ensure” is the curve ball. In my mind, (and it’s a crazy place in there, so enter at your own risk), “ensure” is the midpoint between assure and insure. When you “ensure” something, you’re going to make certain of it. I write for the corporate world as my day job, so I’m constantly using the word “ensure.” I hardly ever use “assure,” because honestly, I don’t want to put myself that much on the line. “Assure” is more of a promise. “Ensure” is more of a statement. And I don’t “insure” anything as I am not qualified or licensed or whatever to do so.
“I will ensure that Margaret gets the plate of cookies before they are all gone.”
“Ensure that you have followed the directions explicitly thus far before continuing to assemble your torpedo cannon.”
Remember that when you “ensure” something, you’re making sure that something is happening correctly or is in some sort of acceptable state.
Ensuring That You Feel Assured About Assure/Ensure/Insure
So that’s the
long and the short of it. To wrap it up in a nice, neat little package, if you can memorize the title to this post (“I Assure You That I Will Ensure That You Are Insured”), you should be able to recall instantly which version of the word you should use for which context. If you have any further questions, though, feel free to leave them in the comments! I will do my best to answer any and all grammar conundrums. In the meantime, here are a few more blog posts on the subject: