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“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”  -- Mark Twain
 
 
 
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Issue 3
September 2016
Nitpick
Nifty tips on how to write and speak more effectively
 
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Floundering over “flounder” and “founder”?
 
Flounder are a type of flatfish such as sole and turbot. But it’s not this flounder that perplexes so many people. It’s the verb “flounder,” which sounds similar to “founder,” that causes confusion.

“To flounder” means to struggle or to handle something with difficulty. “To founder” means to fail, to fall or break down, or to fill with water and sink.

For example:

Mackenzie floundered learning the foxtrot but after six lessons she had mastered the dance.

After floundering in high school, Kurt surprised his parents by earning all A’s in college.

but

The ship foundered in the North Atlantic after hitting an iceberg.

The bill passed in the House of Commons but foundered in the Senate.

It’s easy to confuse “flounder” with “founder” because a struggle occasionally leads to failure. Sometimes either verb can work in a sentence so you need to have the facts to know which one to use.

For instance, it’s correct to say:

Jeff was floundering in Economics 101 so he withdrew from the course.
(Jeff was struggling in Economics 101 so he withdrew from the course.)

and

Jeff was foundering in Economics 101 so he withdrew from the course.
(Jeff was failing Economics 101 so he withdrew from the course.)

So beware of what seems to be a handy rule of thumb—“People can flounder, but ships founder”—because we can, occasionally, founder.
 
 

 
 
Sara Bedal is a writer, editor and plain-language specialist. She helps organizations tell their stories clearly, creatively and concisely.
Photo: Angela Durante Dukát, DUKÁT PHOTOS
 
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