It appears that health insurance will be a topic of continual debate for quite a while. If you are adequately insured, it’s probably because of a good job, good luck or some combination of the two. But what alternative should there be for those who are less fortunate? While I remain somewhat pessimistic about how this issue will play out, I’m hopeful I can at least shed a little light on some word issues this introduction has raised.
It appears that health insurance will be a topic of continual debate for quite a while.
If you are adequately insured, it’s probably because of a good job, good luck or some combination of the two.
But what alternative should there be for those who are less fortunate?
While I remain somewhat pessimistic about how this issue will play out, I’m hopeful I can at least shed a little light on some word issues this introduction has raised.
Insure, ensure, assure: Yes, health insurance is a divisive issue in this country. But there’s general agreement that the verb “insure” should be limited to financial contexts.
“Ensure” means “to make sure or certain” or “to make safe,” and essentially so does “assure.” The difference, as Bryan A. Garner puts it in “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” is that we ensure “that things occur or that events take place,” while we assure other people.
In fact, people often need reassurance.
Continual, continuous: Some usage guides allow these to be used interchangeably, but there’s a fine distinction that others think ought to be maintained.
For example, “The Chicago Manual of Style” says “continual” means “intermittent or frequently repeated,” while something that’s “continuous” “remains constant or uninterrupted.”
So the debate about health insurance is continual — everybody comes up for air occasionally.
However, a filibuster is supposed to be continuous — uninterrupted conversation, whether it’s germane or not, so no one else can talk.
Awhile, a while: This is the simplest one in the bunch, because they mean the same thing. It’s just a matter of which part of speech is needed.
In the opening sentence above, a noun (“a while”) is called for by the preposition “for.” However, in “we have decided to stay awhile,” there’s no preposition, so the one-word adverb is needed.
Again, the meaning is the same, and the one-word “awhile” and the two-word “a while” sound the same.
Alternate, alternative: Alternating current is the principal form of electric power delivery. The alternative is direct current.
To “alternate” is basically “to take turns.” As an adjective, “alternate” means “every other” or “every second,” as in “alternate weekends” or “alternate red and white stripes in the American flag.”
As a noun, an “alternate” is a substitute, as in “12 jurors and two alternates.”
The noun “alternative” means a choice, an option — as in the question above concerning an alternative for people who can’t afford health insurance.
As an adjective, “alternative” can mean a certain kind of choice — an unconventional or nontraditional one, as in “alternative school” or “alternative rock.”
Some people also argue that because of its Latin root (“alter” for “one of two” or “other of two”), there can be no more than two alternatives. So far, opinions seem pretty evenly split on these alternatives.
Hopefully: I wrote “I’m hopeful I can shed a little light” rather than “hopefully I can ...” to avoid setting off alarms.
“Hopefully” is one of those words we’ve all been taught to disdain. The idea is that it can be used only for its traditional meaning, “in a hopeful manner.”
The Associated Press Stylebook continues the fight: “Do not use it to mean it is hoped, let us hope or we hope.”
Virtually all usage guides agree, yet several of them also acknowledge that, as Garner writes, “the battle is now over. ‘Hopefully’ is now part of American English, and it has all but lost its traditional meaning.”
He also advises, however, that “some stalwarts continue to condemn the word, so that anyone using it in the new sense is likely to have a credibility problem with some readers.”
And I don’t need that.
Apostrophes have two main functions: to indicate the possessive case for nouns — the president’s speech, the soldiers’ uniforms — and in contractions — can’t, don’t, isn’t and so on.
They shouldn’t appear in plurals that aren’t possessive — for example, onion’s, $2 a bag.
The Associated Press endorses one exception: the plurals of single letters. Mind your p’s and q’s.
Dot your i’s and cross your t’s. We were taught the three R’s.
Contact Barry Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org or read his blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/woodonwords/.