Dale, a listener from Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, sent this message to us:
"I often hear people use the words insure and ensure improperly. At least I think they've used them improperly. Maybe you could ensure my grammatical correctness by clarifying their proper use."
When talking about insure and ensure, the word assure inevitably enters the mix. Fowler's Modern English Usage says that assure, ensure and insure "have intersecting paths in contexts involving aspects of certainty, assuredness and security."
To help us understand this better, we thought we'd get in touch with someone who deals with this trio of words on a frequent basis.
Ruth Weber Kelley is Head of ING Group Internal Communications at ING, a financial services company with operations in more than 50 countries. Weber Kelley was kind enough to phone us in the studio from her office in Amsterdam. Working in the financial services industry, Weber Kelley and her team find themselves using the words assure, ensure and insure every day.
Weber Kelley says that she feels confident distinguishing these three words and she thanks her strict professors in journalism school for insisting she memorize the rules laid out in books such as the AP Style Guide and Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.
"I can rattle off this little formula that helps me and my team," Weber Kelley says. "You assure someone of something; you ensure that something is going to happen and you insure yourself or someone else against a certain kind of risk."
Weber Kelley points out that assure, ensure and insure share a common etymology, thus it is not surprising that these words get confused. A practical solution is to keep things simple. "The American Heritage Book of English Usage suggests you just assign a separate role for each word and you stick to that," she says, "so that's what I vote for."
The internal communications team at ING is very diverse, consisting of members from all over the world. Weber Kelley polled the team to see if there were any cultural differences associated with assure, ensure and insure, but she found a lot of consistency.
In fact, one of her colleagues from the U.K. shared a helpful sentence that can be used to keep the words straight. "The sentence relies on the fact that the beginning letter of each of the three words follows the order that these letters appear in the alphabet," Weber Kelley says. "Her sentence is, 'I assure you I will ensure that I insure my house.' It goes in the order of the alphabet: A, E, I."
One peculiarity of the financial services world is that some companies are life insurance companies and others are life assurance companies. We asked Weber Kelley to help us understand the difference.
According to a British Web site that Weber Kelley referenced, the central difference between life insurance and life assurance is that life insurance never has an investment value but life assurance does. "But that's not how it's used practically at all," she continues. In fact, she found that within ING there is no distinction; the company only uses the word insurance, and that word is used to equally describe life insurance policies with a cash value and those without.
When Weber Kelley thinks about how complicated it is to keep these three words straight, she says there's no comparison to their complexity in Dutch. She illustrates this by giving us the words for "insurance" and "car insurance" in the Dutch language. "I challenge you and your listeners to say that three times fast," she laughs.
Sources: Oxford Dictionary of Current English; Fowler's Modern English Usage by R.W. Birchfield; AP Style Guide; The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White; The American Heritage Book of English Usage
Music from this Episode: "Mr. Postman" by The Marvelettes; "How Can I Be Sure?" by The Young Rascals.