July 12, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips: ensure or insure & repurpose

Posted in insure/ensure/assure, repurpose at 7:51 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Ensure or insure

A reader writes;

I really enjoy reading your blog, and find it very useful. I am wondering if you can discuss ensure and insure. I am reading a research proposal written by professor and he wrote:

“we intend to pool eight years of data to insure adequate sample size…”

I always thought “ensure” is used in this context and I googled it. Then I read insure is mostly limiting to financial liability. This got me so confused…

Thanks :)
The confused student.

Don’t be confused; professors are people, too, and they can make mistakes. Your professor is not ‘technically’ wrong because the meanings of the words are disputed. But, I am afraid that your professor is dating himself a little bit. I, too, remember when the words were considered synonymous, but over the last couple of decades, that has been changing. The meanings of the words have been diverging, and while not all dictionaries have caught up yet, the general consensus now is that ‘ensure’ means to make certain, and ‘insure’ means to issue a financial policy to compensate someone in the event of an injury, illness, or loss (i.e., insurance).

The agent insured the couple’s home for damages related to flooding.

The program was designed to ensure that the neighborhood children received the services they needed.

The question is whether you are going to tell your professor about his ‘mistake.’ I think you should. Some people will see ‘insure’ and think the professor is wrong. Moreover, it’s possible that one of his reviewers has as his or her ‘pet peeve’ the use of ‘insure’ and ‘ensure,’ and that would be dreadful. Just explain the usage has changed, and try to avoid implying that the professor is old. You’ll be fine.

Tip 2: Repurpose

A reader writes:

Want to say something about the worthliness* of “repurpose” as in

Little did he know that, on July 9, 1862, his temporary home, though in some ways a purgatory between his enslaved past and his future as a free man, would also give him the possibility — one he may well have realized — of meeting the man who would soon repurpose the entire war to end slavery in America.  (NYT Opinionator blog)

*Worthliness:  The worthiness of a neologism as a word

Don’t get me started  on ‘worthliness.’ But ‘repurpose,’ well, I will take a stab. I’m not sure I would call it a neologism any longer. It is pretty firmly entrenched in the language.

[NOTE: A neologism is a newly coined word or an existing word used in a new way—you could say a repurposed word.]

As I said, ‘repurpose’ is well established. It shows up in most dictionaries. According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, it’s first use was in 1984.  For the record, I believe that it is a particularly ugly word and not one that I would use easily. But I am struck that is has such a specific meaning—to reuse for a purpose other than its original use. I can’t think of any other word with that precise meaning. There’s adapt or reinvent, but neither is as precise.

And that’s why I don’t have any real objection to the word. It exists, and it has a unique meaning. It also fits well in our increasingly ‘green’ culture. People reuse, restore, recycle, and repurpose. And it’s good for the environment.


1 Comment »

  1. the no longer confused student said,


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