Welcome once again to Language Ninja’s Q & A, where the Ninj answers burning grammatical and common usage questions. This week, we bring you a Holiday Grab-Bag of grammatical gaffes. Let’s get started!

Q: What is the difference between the terms ensure and insure? Don’t they essentially mean the same thing?

A: Eh… sort of. Not really.

Basically, the verb to ensure means to make sure/certain of. The verb to insure, on the other hand, means to provide protection against some kind of difficulty. These two definitions may seem kind of similar, but when you consider that insure is used only within the context of easing a financial or personal burden, while ensure carries no such specific good/bad implication, the distinction becomes clearer. By oiling the springs on her homemade spike traps, Gladys ensures the projectiles will easily pierce through the hearts of her victims. 

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This familiar passage from Dante’s Inferno might as well become the new slogan of Waterstones, a major UK book retailer that recently garnered major media attention when an American tourist was locked in their Trafalgar Square bookstore after they closed up for the night. While our hapless hero used the Internet in the upstairs section, the staff apparently clocked out, locked up and went home. Unsure of what to do, he eventually tweeted his situation from his smartphone, and was instantly flooded with book recommendations from concerned tweeters who wanted to make sure he had enough quality reading to square him away for the night. Heaven forbid he would end up with something sub-par to read! He became an overnight Twitter sensation and was retweeted more than 12,000 times by the following afternoon. The tourist was freed after a couple of hours, which, unfortunately, he did not use to peruse the length of Fahrenheit 451 or delight in the witty prose of Jonathan Safran Foer. “I people-watched from the window,” he later said in an interview. To each his own. 

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The Internet abounds with examples of “Engrish”—signs, menus, and other writing, poorly translated into English. For example:

  • “Carefully slip and fall down.”
  • “Please present your octopus.”
  • “If you are stolen, call the police at once.”

Although English speakers find these amusing, did you ever stop to think that it works both ways—that non-English speakers might get a laugh from writing that is poorly translated from English? I’ll spare you the suspense: Yes. 

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I just left the DMV in midtown Manhattan. Let’s place my current emotional state somewhere in the sixth circle of Hell (Heresy), smack dab between Anger and Violence.

In truth, it wasn’t as dreadful as you might imagine. With facilitators armed with tablets to constantly update customers on their expected wait times and plenty of city bureaucrats to process paperwork, I was in and out in around 45 minutes. But during my time there, I must have signed my name 15 times, each scrawl looking a little less legible and feeling less like a stamp of authenticity and more like an excessive burden with little meaning in a digital world.

So I ask: is the signature dead? What relevance does your John Hancock have in today’s wired society? 

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