The Danger of Unverified Prescriptivist Complaints:

A commenter provides the following:

Back to the subject at hand: One of my own pet peeves is the use of "insure" where the writer clearly means "ensure". "Affect" for "effect" is just as bad, but not nearly as common; these days, it seems like everybody and his dog misuses "insure". I'd check a dictionary or style manual for support, but I'm worried that the new usage of "insure" has become so common that they may consider it correct.

Oh, buddy, it's worse than you can imagine. Much worse. From the Oxford English Dictionary definition of "insure" (definition 5 is the modern one, but I include #1 because of the back-reference to it in #5):

1. trans. To make (a person) sure (of a thing); to give security to (a person) for the fulfilment of something: cf. ASSURE v. 9, ENSURE v. 1, 2. Obs.

c1440 Promp. Parv. 262/2 Insuryn, or make suere, assecuro. 1681-6 J. SCOTT Chr. Life (1747) III. 21 Thus Christ..hath taken the most effectual Care to insure the mutual Performance of this everlasting Covenant to both insure God of our performing our Part..and to insure us of God's performing his Part....

5. trans. To make certain, to secure, to guarantee (some thing, event, etc.): = ASSURE v. 5, 7a, ENSURE v. 8, 9.

1681-6 [see sense 1]. 1809 W. IRVING Knickerb. VII. xiii. (1849) 450 Such supineness insures the very evil from which it shrinks. 1821 MRS. SHERWOOD Hist. Geo. Desmond 19 He had insured for me the situation of a writer on the Bengal establishment. 1849 RUSKIN Sev. Lamps vi. §8. 170 Want of care in the points which insure the building's endurance. a1862 BUCKLE Civiliz. viii. (1873) 462 An ardour which could hardly fail to insure success.

It's not that the new usage of "insure" has made it "become" correct. It's that "insure" to mean "ensure" has been standard English since the late 1600s. "Insure" to mean "secure the payment of a sum of money in the event of loss of or damage to property" is attested in the OED only fifty years earlier (1635), and even that quote uses "ensure" and "insure" interchangeably: "Authorising your petitioner to ensure all your majesty's subjects whatsoever for soe much of their estates combustible as they themselves shall conceive in danger of Fire, not taking above 12d. per centum yearly for soe much soe insured."

Now as it happens I don't like "insure" to mean "ensure," either. Using "insure" may lead the reader to think of insurance, which may thus be slightly distracting. Such usage would almost never be ambiguous, because the following word or words will make clear which sense of "insure" is meant. And English is so full of words with multiple meanings that English speakers are unlikely to be much distracted by another such word. Still, I have an esthetic preference for limiting "insure" to situations involving insurance, and perhaps there's some practical benefit for following such a practice.

But it's one thing to say "potentially needlessly distracting," "esthetically displeasing," "inelegant," or "pet peeve[]" -- it's another to say "misuse[]" or "[not] correct." When current dictionaries report that this usage is common today (see, for instance, this Usage Note, this definition, and this definition), and when the usage has been attested in the Oxford English Dictionary since the late 1600s, how could even a prescriptivist credibly argue that it's wrong?

Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
How about "warrantee" as a verb form: "The manufacturer warrantees against life-threatening defects for 90 days."
7.24.2007 1:34pm
steve (mail):
The battle will have been truly lost when 'comprise' is fully assimilated to 'compose':

The state comprises the counties and the counties compose the state, i.e., the state ain't comprised of anything.
7.24.2007 1:36pm
Christopher M (mail):
steve: Sorry, man, but that "battle" has been lost for a while. From the OED entry on "comprise":

[8]b. To constitute, make up, compose.
1794 G. ADAMS Nat. &Exp. Philos. II. xvi. 238 The wheels and pinions comprizing the wheel-work. 1794 PALEY Evid. I. ix. (1817) 169 The propositions which comprise the several heads of our testimony. 1850 W. S. HARRIS Rudimentary Magnetism iv. 73 These substances which we have termed diamagnetic..and which comprise a very extensive class of bodies. 1907 H. E. SANTEE Anat. Brain &Spinal Cord (1908) iii. 237 The fibres comprising the zonal layer have four sources of origin. 1925 Brit. Jrnl. Radiology XXX. 148 The various fuses etc. comprising the circuit. 1950 M. PEAKE Gormenghast (1968) xiv. 94 Who, by the way, do comprise the Staff these latter days? 1959 Chambers's Encycl. XIII. 653/1 These fibres also comprise the main element in scar tissue. 1969 W. HOOPER in C. S. Lewis Sel. Lit. Ess. p. xix, These essays together with those contained in this volume comprise the total of C. S. Lewis's essays on literature. 1969 N. PERRIN Dr. Bowdler's Legacy (1970) i. 20 As to who comprised this new reading public, Jeffrey..guessed in 1812 that there were 20,000 upper-class readers in Great Britain.

c. pass. To be composed of, to consist of.
1874 Art of Paper-Making ii. 10 Thirds, or Mixed, are comprised of either or both of the above. 1928 Daily Tel. 17 July 10/7 The voluntary boards of management, comprised..of very zealous and able laymen. 1964 E. PALMER tr. Martinet's Elem. Gen. Ling. i. 28 Many of these words are comprised of monemes. 1970 Nature 27 June 1206/2 Internally, the chloroplast is comprised of a system of flattened membrane sacs.
7.24.2007 1:50pm
When current dictionaries report that this usage is common today (see, for instance, this Usage Note, this definition, and this definition), and when the usage has been attested in the Oxford English Dictionary since the late 1600s, how could even a prescriptivist credibly argue that it's wrong?

They shouldn't. Given that many generally recognized authorities are descriptive, prescriptivists can never say a widely accepted usage is "wrong" in the sense of non-standard or contrary to all generally recognized authority.

But this is only an argument against prescriptivism to the extent its proponents insist on arguing that common usages are wrong in this sense -- which, admittedly, many do. More sophisticated prescriptivists admit that an objectionable but accepted usage is not "wrong," but argue that it should be rejected (by authorities and everyone else) because it is objectionable. The hope is that over time, it will become wrong.
7.24.2007 1:56pm
bittern (mail):
when the usage has been attested in the Oxford English Dictionary since the late 1600s, how could even a prescriptivist credibly argue that it's wrong?

Of course "insure" for "ensure" is wrong. But you'll never find that out by looking backwards in history. You need to look forwards. Lots of bad spellings and stupid words have been dropped as the language has been improved. Trouble is, this grammar blog somehow attracts lots of politically conservative lawyers, reminiscing about the golden age preserved in Hammurabi's Law, as interpreted by H's Original Intent. What you need here is some counter-libertarian Utopians, who can foresee a time when all the wrong things in English are done away with. EV, you're just attracting the wrong kind of prescriptivists. Enough with the reactionary forces. Onward to a brave new language order!
7.24.2007 2:28pm
Laura S.:
At an airport, I once saw a door marked:

"Door will alarm if opened"

As it happens "alarm" comes from the French A l'arme which literally means "To the arms"

Which is to say that "sounding the alarm" is a call to grab your musket and assemble.

Obviously modern usage has drifted...
7.24.2007 2:30pm
Curt Fischer:
The lesson from EV's last few language posts seems to be that the Oxford English Dictionary is the prescriptivists' worst nightmare.

Long live the OED.
7.24.2007 2:50pm
luispedro (mail) (www):
I have always found proponents of "correct English" to be people who know too much Latin and too little English.
7.24.2007 2:59pm
crane (mail):
Really? Darn, someone should show that to my high school English teacher.

It may take a while before that usage stops grating on my nerves, though.
7.24.2007 3:17pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Curt Fischer: I'd simply say that the OED disproves the claims of people (prescriptivists or descriptivists) who wrongly claim that some usage is novel -- just as any good works of history help disprove incorrect historical claims.
7.24.2007 3:33pm
Warmongering Lunatic:
It is inherently descriptivist to claim that actual usage—whether current or historical—establishes correctness. Someone who objects to usages on the grounds they are new is merely a conservative descriptivist, however much he may believe he is a prescriptivist.

That a usage is "potentially needlessly distracting," "esthetically displeasing," or "inelegant," is sufficient grounds in itself to declare a usage incorrect. We are prescribing here. Undesirability is sufficient grounds for a rule, and undesirability is a matter of judgment and taste. Statistics and precedent are irrelevant, and the descriptivists are quite right that prescriptivists should not argue from them.
7.24.2007 5:50pm
steve (mail):

Hard to see, I know, but there's a white flag being waved above this post.
7.25.2007 8:34am
"[W]hen the usage has been attested in the Oxford English Dictionary since the late 1600s, how could even a prescriptivist credibly argue that it's wrong?"

That's like asking, "When the Rule in Shelley's Case has existed since the 1580s, how could an attorney credibly argue that it's wrong?"

The answer is simple -- the prescriptivist, like the attorney, cites to authority. And they argue about what the rules are, not about whether those rules are "wrong."

I live in Massachusetts, and my office uses the Wall Street Journal Guide to Business Style and Usage as its styleguide. So I can answer both questions prescriptively:

(1) "Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 184, sec. 5 legislatively repealed the rule in Shelley's Case, 1 Co. Rep. 93b (1581)."

(2) "The Wall Street Journal Guide to Business Style and Usage forbids that usage of 'insure.' It prescribes: 'Use ensure to mean guarantee: Steps were taken to ensure accuracy. Use insure for references to insurance: The policy insures his life. Use assure in referring to people: I assured him of my loyalty.'"
7.25.2007 2:16pm