Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ensuring against ineffective word choices

Recently, I sent an email reminding to several of my chess-playing friends -- nerdish mostly, but occasionally snobby too -- that the day of the email was the last day to register to vote in time for the upcoming election, and that even though "it probably won't effect the presidential race" there were several important down-ballot races that needed their votes. (And if you live in Travis County or the Third Appellate District, this is one of the most important ones.) One of my nerdy, snobby, chess-playing friends promptly replied "Yes, but will it affect the presidential race?" I was so dense that particular evening that it took another email from another nerdy, snobby, chess-playing friend (albeit one who pays attention to local judicial races -- thanks, Pete!) before I realized that I was being dissed, properly, for using "effect" when I meant "affect". I didn't choose one consciously over the other, but it wasn't a typo; it was sloppy editing (a synonym in this instance for "no editing"), which is just as bad.

Although the word "effect", as used above, isn't grammatically incorrect, it wasn't what I intended to say, and it rendered the sentence nonsensical, so it was -- what's the word I'm looking for -- wrong. Briefly, "affect" means to influence, to change, or to bring about an effect. "Effect" means to result (in). (I've summarized the definitions from Fowler's Modern English Usage (2d. Ed.) so you won't know I'm plagiarizing them.) It's clear that a vote by one person in Travis County is not likely either to affect, or to effect, the outcome of the Presidential election. It's much more likely that a vote will affect local races.

That's true wherever you live. Vote.

My nerdy, snobby chess-playing friends got me thinking about words with different meanings but virtually identical spellings. Two of these words that I was obsessed with in law school were "ensure" and "insure". I regret that Fowler's article about spelling words beginning with "en-" and "in-" misleads the reader into thinking that the two words above are but spelling variants for the same thing; they are not. "Ensure" has a more general sense of preventing some bad thing from happening; if that doesn't work, "insure" has a more limited sense of making the bad thing good again, usually by paying money to repair damages. "Ensure" comes before
"insure" in the dictionary, and in life: you take steps to ensure a contingency doesn't occur; you insure yourself so that, if the contigency does occur, you will be protected or made whole.

While I was in law school, one of the candidates for the Student Bar Association used the word "ensure", correctly, in her platform statement. The effect of her usage was to affect my vote.

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