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Prefixes 'En' and 'In' Battle for Dominance

Rob Kyff on

Q. When should "enclosed" be used vs. "inclosed"? Is there a difference in meaning? -- Katherine Evans, Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania

A. You might assume that "enclose" should mean "to surround something" (enclose the corral) and that "inclose" should mean "to insert something" (inclose a resume).

In fact, "inclose" is a needless variant of "enclose"; "enclose" is always the correct choice.

The case is closed on "enclosed," but deciding whether to use "e" or "i" at the start of other words presents a common dilemma. Should you write enshrine or inshrine? Endorse or indorse? Enquire or inquire?

These choices stem from a linguistic war that has been raging in English for centuries between the Latin prefixes "in--" and "im-" and the French prefixes "en-" and "em-."

For some perspective, let's take an anachronistic leap and picture a battle between Latin-speaking Roman centurions of the first century and Napoleonic French grenadiers of the 19th century.

Centurion: I, Claudius, will impale you!

Grenadier: No, I, Pierre, will empale you!

Horses snort, projectiles soar, cockades and curses fly. (These soldiers are 'em'battled in more ways than one.)

 

But soon Roman shields and spears prove no match for French bullets and bayonets. And that's pretty much the way it has gone in English as well. The French "e" has gradually vanquished the outmoded "i."

As with enclose, the verbs enshrine, endorse, encrust, entrust, entwine and enforce are now preferred over their Latin "in/im-" predecessors, though the old form "inforce" survives in reinforce.

But there are exceptions. The grizzled centurions' "i" prefixes survive in impale, imbue, impanel, impoverish, inflame, ingrain, inure and inquire, though the Brits, God bless 'em, prefer the French "enquire."

Remember, too, that in some words the "e" and "i" prefixes denote completely different meanings. Innumerable means unable to be counted, while enumerable means able to be counted. Immigrate means to migrate into, while emigrate means to migrate from. Imminent means impending, while eminent means distinguished.

Likewise, insure denotes financial indemnity (insure your car), while ensure bears the more general meaning "to make certain" (ensure your success). And, in another oddity, while judges enjoin (order, forbid) something, they create, not an enjunction, but an injunction.

As for our beleaguered European combatants, I say, 'In'hail Caesar and Vive la Fr'en'ch! And as for those impenetrable Brits, enquire within.

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Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His new book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Amazon.com. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to WordGuy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.
 

 

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