Be sure, ensure

Subject: Be sure, ensure
From: John Gear <catalyst -at- PACIFIER -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 12 Jul 1995 10:31:00 PDT

>In my department's style guide, we use "Be sure," as a compromise between
>stuffiness and colloquialism. "Be sure you can ping to each client before
>beginning installation." (Apologies to anyone who winces at "ping" as a verb.)
>We use "ensure" when it's a non-human doing the ensuring: "Backing up your data
>will ensure that you don't lose important information."

I avoid "be xxxx" constructions (be certain, be absolutely certain, be real
sure ... all of which I have seen used).

This is because I think instructions are intended to tell people how to
*do*, not how to be.

If I can't figure out some action the user can take that will make them
"sure," then I can't answer the basic question that each procedural step
address: What do I do now?

Whenever I read instructions that tell me to "Be sure ..." I always get the
feeling that it's an underhanded way of saying "Caution." Only instead of
clearly stating the problem and telling me how to avoid it, the instructions
just say "Don't mess this up, you'll be sorry if you do--and we warned you."

I liked the suggestion to use "verify that x does y." That's a positive
action that the users can take and then they need not be "sure" of anything.

Besides, many people who are unfamiliar with a procedure or process feel
very unsure throughout; instructions that are directed their emotional state
seem pointless. And I don't think that the stress is reduced by hinting
that there may be problems ("Be sure ...") without offering clear
instructions for avoiding them.

I *do* use "ensure" a good deal in management control procedures, where the
procedure user is often not the doer ("Ensure that the occurrence report is
submitted"). Verify doesn't work because when the instruction is given the
event may not have happened--nothing to verify yet and I avoid creating
suspended actions whenever possible.

I'm agree that ensure-assure-insure are often poorly used but have resolved
the problem in my work this way:

Insure involves insurance

Use "assure" only where you could use "reassure"

Use ensure to mean "take action to cause or verify"

These have worked well so far.
John Gear (catalyst -at- pacifier -dot- com)

The Bill of Rights--The Original Contract with America
Accept no substitutes. Beware of imitations. Insist on the genuine articles.


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