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Shibboleths & White Shoes: 5 Lessons for Editors

This post is a response to comments from readers about my use of “insure” in Editors insure content matches audience readiness for it. I’m using this as a teaching moment for my technical editing students so it might be too long for others. Skip ahead if you just want to get to shibboleths or white shoes or the 5 lessons.

Insure vs. Ensure

On Twitter, one of my blog readers wrote,

I wonder, based on today’s heading, whether you ever make a distinction between insure and ensure.

This comment is similar to an author query by an editor. It’s a good query, in this case, because it can be interpreted as a simple question, and it’s carefully indirect if meant as a suggestion. After all, I didn’t enlist the reader to serve as my blog editor. And, even if I had, a good editor knows that ownership belongs with the author.

My immediate reaction to the query was to reflect on my usage: I use these two terms as synonyms and, for me, “ensure” is more conservative. I would use it in a context more formal than my blog. Later, I checked a couple of dictionaries to make sure my use of “insure” in the heading was standard. (The habit of looking things up is one sign of a good editor.)

My preferred dictionary, Merriam-Webster, as well as the Oxford Dictionary, lists multiple definitions for “insure.” The following ones are relevant to my headline choice:

  1. to make certain especially by taking necessary measures and precautions (M-W)
  2. to secure or protect someone against (a possible contingency) (Oxford)
  3. as a synonym for “ensure” (Oxford)

Here’s what Oxford says about “insure” and “ensure.”

There is considerable overlap between the meaning and use of insure and ensure. In both British and US English the primary meaning of insure is the commercial sense of providing financial compensation in the event of damage to property; ensure is not used at all in this sense. For the more general senses, ensure is the more usual word, but insure is also sometimes used, particularly in US English, e.g. bail is posted to insure that the defendant appears for trial; the system is run to ensure that a good quality of service is maintained

I was surprised to read “ensure” is more common so I investigated a little more. The chart shows the ngram of usage for the two words in books over the past 200 years.

ngramThe use of “ensure” increased dramatically around 1950. I’m not sure how my own idiolect diverged from the norm except that I grew up surrounded by linguistically conservative speakers whose usage must have reflected the equivalency of the two terms. “Ensure” is definitely the more recent usage.

As a result of this investigation, I’ll be more discriminating in my use of “insure” in the future. More importantly, this reader’s comment gave me the chance to show my students that, even with almost 30 years of editing experience, I am still actively learning how to do my job better.


Another reader’s comment on my use of “insure” was more like an edit than a query.

You may wish to change your headline to fix the misspelling: editors ENSURE content matches audience readiness

The phrasing “may wish” makes this an indirect suggestion. But the use of “fix” and “misspelling” clearly classify my word choice as an error, and that prompted me to revisit the topic of shibboleths.

As John Fought explained in the PBS series, Do You Speak American?,

Language has always helped to signify who we are in society, sometimes serving as a basis for exclusion. A Bible story tells how a password, shibboleth, was chosen because the enemy didn’t use the sh sound.“Shibboleth” has since come to signify an emblem of belief or membership, an identifiable sign of those who must stay outside the gate.

The second reader comment categorizes my use of “insure” instead of “ensure” as a shibboleth. My usage signals I’m an outsider. If I want to be an insider, I have to change my language. I’ve already said that, although two dictionaries support my choice of “insure,” my investigation will make me more discriminating in my use of that word in the future. This additional teaching moment concerns the presumption of my error–the judgment about my lack of proper etiquette.

This is where my beliefs probably diverge from those of the reader who made the comment. My training as a linguist means I don’t believe anyone’s language is wrong. Ever. But I know our language can be ineffective in meeting our goals. That belief underlies my career as a writer, editor, and a teacher or coach of writers and editors. Many, perhaps most, editors share the worldview of prescriptive grammar–that language choices can be wrong. For a more detailed discussion of prescriptive grammar within the context of professional writing/editing, see my earlier post about grammar rules. Here’s a summary.

Prescriptive grammar is the result of a movement in England between 1650 and 1800. Influenced by the chaotic political and social climate of the time, four literary giants (Dryden, Defoe, Swift & Johnson) tried to control the English language by forming a regulatory agency. Although the agency did not endure, Johnson’s authoritative dictionary did. So did the men’s haughty conviction that breaking the rules for proper English (as arbitrarily defined by them) constitutes a breach in etiquette. And such breaches are simply wrong. Like wearing white shoes after Labor Day.

White Shoes

A condescending attitude based on arbitrary rules of etiquette continues and is pervasive among editors. A notable exception, editor Stan Carey writes,

Editors are prescriptive by definition, and many would happily call themselves prescriptivist. Outside of work too, some are linguistically conservative by nature, or rather habit. But this is not a necessity for the job, nor, to my mind, does it automatically confer advantage.

I agree a prescriptive attitude is no advantage. In fact, I would say it’s a disadvantage to an editor.

You may wonder how editors can do their work without telling authors they are wrong. Let me make two points.

The first point is that I do recognize most shibboleths. As an editor, I suggest how authors can alter their language in order to pass through the gate if it leads them toward their final destination. If I’m working on behalf of the author, I do not dictate those changes. If I work on behalf of the publisher, I do. But my directives are based on compliance with the chosen style guide–not on judgments of proper etiquette. And I offer suggestions only to people who have invited me to.

The second point is that editors whose attitude is descriptive distinguish between shibboleths that matter and zombie rules.  I know rules about ending a sentence with a preposition and using passive voice are the latter type. There has been considerable research in this area over the past 30 years (see further readings below).

John E. McIntyre, editor at the Baltimore Sun, makes the same points in this video.

Some of us choose not to carry on the tradition of looking down on those who wear white shoes after Labor Day.  As a teacher, I believe my job is to expand rather than restrict my students’ choices. I want them to understand what it means to choose white shoes on a whole range of occasions. There is no simple right vs. wrong. I want students to learn how to think about language, how it can be managed to achieve rhetorical aims. Then they will be educated enough to make their own informed choices about shoes or language.

As McIntyre says, we should be capable of “judgment rather than adherence to some set of shibboleths.”

5 Lessons for Editors

  1. Authors own their texts.
  2. No editor can ever stop looking things up.
  3. Editors must continue to improve their craft.
  4. Editing often requires choices among multiple, viable options.
  5. All good editorial suggestions are based on an understanding of a text’s rhetorical context.

Further Reading

For those of you who are interested in more thoughtful editing,  here are some of my favorite sources:

Here are the major studies establishing the degree of negative attention generated by breaking various prescriptive rules:

  1. Hairston. (1981). Not All Errors Are Created Equal: Nonacademic Readers in the Professions Respond to Lapses in Usage. College English, 43, 794-806.
  2. Connors & Lunsford. (1988). Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research. College Composition and Communication, 39, 395-409.
  3. Leonard & Gilsdorf. (1990). Language in Change: Academics’ and Executives’ Perceptions of Usage Errors. Journal of Business Communication, 27, 137-158.
  4. Seshadri & Theye. (2000). Professionals and Professors: Substance or Style? Business Communication Quarterly, 64, 9-23.
  5. Beason. (2001). Ethos and Error: How Business People React to Errors. College Composition and Communication, 53, 33-64.
  6. Lunsford & Lunsford. (2008). Mistakes Are a Fact of Life: A National Comparative Study.College Composition and Communication, 59, 781-806.

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