Sunday, October 3, 2010

"Ensure"

I just read the following sentence:

"Judicial review insures that democratically enacted laws are constitutional."

Am I right to think that the third word is incorrect? Shouldn't it be "ensures"?

This mistake seems to be getting increasingly common-- in professional publications. Views?

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

You are right, but this is nothing compared to the constant use of "they" as a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. Someone should start a blog or something about this.

Anonymous said...

You're right, and it's defiantly another sign of the apocalypse...

Anonymous said...

My grandma drinks it.

http://www.phc-online.com/v/vspfiles/photos/Ensure-Plus-24x8oz-2T.jpg

Anonymous said...

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/insure (see the third definition)

I see it a lot in legal opinions. It's technically grammatically accurate, although I too cringe whenever I see it used instead of "ensure."

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:08, you have provided a classic example of ignorance-fueled prescriptivism hiding as "proper English." The truth is that the singular they has been around for ages, and is perfectly fine (you might, for example, look this up on languagelog).

Anonymous said...

Spiros, Anon 9:08 and Anon 9:31 are all wrong. Even a lame appeal to a usage panel and/or linguistic prescriptivism won't help them. On the basis of this post, I would place Spiros at no younger than 45-50. =)

Anonymous said...

I thought you could only insure something with insurance. That's a real rule in precisely the way a rule against using "they" as a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun isn't.

Anonymous said...

I can insure (sic) that this has nothing to do with Ensure (trademarked)--which is the contemporary Kool-Aid for progressive linguists: nutritionally complete and sweet but completely artificial and marketed to acceptance. And the drink of choice for anyone whom matters of agreement of reference and thus clarity of expression does not at all matter.

I prefer clear liquids to Ensure; alcohol infused preferably.

And Spiros as drinking companion.

word: prouidsh (internally Spoonerized)

Anonymous said...

Someone told me that "they" was in use as the gender neutral singular pronoun from the 15th century till the 18th century's prescription of "he" as the universal pronoun.

But I still want to know about the content of Spiros' green porn.

Anonymous said...

There is some truly awesome irony in this thread. I think two of the comments are deadpan ironic.

Just wanted the commenters to know your naughtiness wasn't for naught.

Glaucon said...

I'm with Anon 10/4 7:05am: I thought that the first two posts were ironic. 9:31's is especially delicious. I couldn't figure out why students defiantly believed so much stuff until I realized that Word was auto-correcting 'definately' into 'defiantly' rather than 'definitely'.

I look forward to the day when someone writes about "the straw man fellatio." No doubt, hilarity will insue...

Anonymous said...

9:31 here: thanks. I didn't realize that it's MS Word that is to blame for this particular stupidity.

Anonymous said...

@10:48

Hey, I'm younger than 40, and it pisses me off. Using "they" as a singular pronoun does, too. And, hey, just because it's been done forever doesn't mean it's right - grammatically, it's crap, even if people have been using it forever.

Verify: swarcol

Anonymous said...

@1:28

Wow. I need to stop leaving comments when I've just woken up. I sound drunk or something.

Anonymous said...

Oh the Grammar Nazi Legion has been awakened! It is amazing that members of this elite community can understand any form of communication which is not the proper God (xtian) given King's English (Olde and Newe) as revised by the 2008 National English (American) Certification Board. With any luck we can find a solution to deal with those barbarians who are bastardizing our pure and glorious language!

Word: Squat

PA said...

What I want to know is how Spiros manages to insure we commentators always get such good verification words?

Word Verification: ittionst

Anonymous said...

Garner nixes "insure" in this context here.

And everybody knows he's the man.

Miss Jane said...

'Insure' in the relevant sense is sense #5 in the OED. Okay, Garner doesn't want you to use it. But we're philosophers, so we want reasons. (Right???) And he doesn't have any.

Worse, he thinks 'that' clauses are predicates. Good lord. He might be more of a buffoon than David Foster Wallace, which is not easy.

Mostly Anonymous said...

The OED says "insure" is just fine. In fact, five out of the first six definitions for "insure" list "ensure" as a synonym, including the first one. Maybe someone could tell me what exactly the problem is supposed to be?

Anonymous said...

Most all language trends toward simplification, and in proportion to sphere of influence. Alexandrian koine greek was not as rich as attic; contemporary english not as nuanced as victorian. Example today? Who uses "may" for the permissive instead of "can" anymore? http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/can
But such ambiguity with "can" confuses concepts of ability and opportunity, and thus confuses people about issues involved with those separate concepts--such as freedom. Some of our mothers tried to straighten us out on that: "Can I go outside?" Mom: "I don't know--CAN you?" Sarcastically emphasizing that you should have asked for permission. But who says "may" anymore? "Can" now does both jobs--but not particularly well. I'd argue that much of philosophy's job is to rail against that part of simplification of language that trends toward conceptual ambiguity--distinctions, people, distinctions. And with clarity of distinctions comes clarity of language. Yes--I know the vagaries of grammar as a separate enterprise of concern. But clarity is one battleground no philosopher should surrender.

English Jerk said...

Anon. 11:01,

It is not the case, as any linguist will tell you, that all human languages (or the same language at different times) have different levels of complexity. Given the conditions of language acquisition, it's not possible in principle that this could be true. Languages do not "trend[] toward simplicity." When changes happen, reductions of apparent complexity in one domain are invariably accompanied by increases in apparent complexity elsewhere (e.g., the apparent simplification of the Old English inflectional system was accompanied by an apparent increase in intricate restrictions on word order).

Also, all human languages are pervasively ambiguous in the way you describe (as well as other ways). Virtually every word in the dictionary has more than one meaning. So lexical ambiguity is the norm. But in most contexts people don't even notice that this is the case. As someone who teaches linguistics courses, I can assure you that it is frequently difficult to get students even to register such ambiguities. The reason for this is that lexical semantics is only one (rather small) part of linguistic meaning, and linguistic meaning is only one (rather small) part of communication (which is one of many uses to which language can be put). The enormous ambiguity of natural languages does not render communication equally ambiguous, since communication (but not lexical or syntactic meaning) is strongly determined by non-linguistic context. For example, the sentence "I had a book stolen" could mean that someone stole a book from me, or it could mean that I hired a book thief to steal a book for me, or it could mean that I had almost gotten a stolen book out of the library (but I got caught), etc. But in virtually any context in which a person uses that sentence, its potential ambiguity will go entirely unnoticed and unremarked. It will be obvious what it means.

I think you would find a great deal that's interesting and illuminating in recent linguistics. For a reliable introductory overview, I'd recommend that you have a look at Fromkin, Rodman, and Hymans' Introduction to Language. For a detailed discussion of some of the core conceptual issues in linguistics, see Isac and Reis' I-Language: An Introduction to Linguistics as Cognitive Science. And for a theoretical account of language change, see Mark Hale's Historical Linguistics: Theory and Method. The later chapters of the Hale book presuppose some acquaintance with basic phonology and comparative philology, but otherwise these books are quite accessible, and I think you'll find them quite illuminating.

English Jerk said...

Spiros's example (especially, I'm sure, in its original context) seems to me perfectly unambiguous. Do people suppose that "Judicial Review" is a new branch of Geico? And that they're taking out bets on constitutionality? Hardly seems likely. So the author communicated their point. And if the author successfully communicated, what's the problem? After all, "insure" and "ensure" are homophones, and we don't have any trouble distinguishing them in ordinary conversation. I see no reason why they can't be spelled the same way.

Anonymous said...

English Jerk, that was not at all jerky.

Can/may I point out that the ambiguity engendered by using 'can' for permission is mirrored by another ambiguity in using 'may' for permission? Yes, I can/may. As we all know, 'may' is used for epistemic possibility (maybe also for alethic or 'metaphysical' possibility, too). So, "John may come to the party" is ambiguous between giving (or reporting) a permission, and expressing epistemic openness.
Point being, you can't eliminate ambiguity by going with 'may' for all permissions. All you can do is pick your preferred ambiguity. How nice that we have a choice!

Anonymous said...

English Jerk:

I'm 11:01, and I stand corrected as noted. Thank you! I learned quite a bit from your short but rich post.

"English Nerd" maybe, my friend--no Jerk-ness detected at all!

Anonymous said...

Isn't "insurance" called insurance because it ensures your continued solvency in spite of losses? They might equally have called it "ensurance".

"Insure" and "ensure" used to be synonyms, but now the former also has a slightly technical sense that the latter doesn't have. What's the problem?

Anonymous said...

Doesn't Philippa Foot have a posse?

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that "ensure" take a "that" clause as its object, whereas "insure" takes a noun phrase. If that's correct, then even if "ensure" and "insure" are essentially synonyms, it might still make sense to distinguish them, just as it makes sense to distinguish "affect" from "effect." Or are we throwing that distinction out the window too?

Tina said...

Interesting post, English Jerk. Sounds like you are saying that all natural languages, at all times, have the same level of complexity. That would be surprising. It certainly means that you do not include maths and science as part of the language, for the languages of maths and science certainly increase in complexity.

How do you measure complexity of a language, in order to prove that all natural languages at all times have the same level of complexity?