Q&A: Inquire vs Enquire

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Each week, we chat about the quirks and anomalies of the English language. This week, an inquiry into enquiring and inquiring…

Q: Hi AWC, it’s Valentine’s Day this weekend. Is that apostrophe correct?
A: Sure is – the day belongs to St Valentine. The long form is of course “St Valentine’s Day”, also known as “Roses cost HOW much?? Day” .

Q: Okay, good. So now that we’ve got that out of the way, I’d like to enquire about enquire vs inquire – I know one of your readers wanted to hear about this, and quite frankly, so do I.
A: Alright, well this one is quite subjective, depending on where you live and even where you work.

Q: I live in a house. It has a yellow front door. My neighbour is Janice, she is 67 and she waters her garden every evening in her swimming costume.
A: Not quite what we meant. If you live in the USA, you’ll generally use the “i” version for everything – inquiry, inquire, inquiries. And they’d argue that it makes sense, what with “inquest” and “inquisitive” existing only as “i” variants.

Q: Hmm, well personally I’ve always used “enquire” or “enquiries” or “enquiry” for almost everything I do. The only time I’d go with the “I” is for something like “a police inquiry” or “the Liberal party held their fifth formal inquiry of the week today”…
A: You’ve touched on a usage method common throughout UK, Australia and New Zealand. That’s where “enquiry” is thought of more as an informal request (to ask), while an “inquiry” is a formal, official investigation.

Q: Yeah that’s the one. So which one is correct?
A: Both are. The original Latin was inquirere (from quaerere, meaning “seek”) with Old French word enquerre deriving from that. Words like quest, require, question and acquire share a similar back story – without the evil twin subplot.

Q: Do insure and ensure follow a similar path?
A: They sure do – “in” for Latin, “en” for French. However, their meanings aren’t so close as to cause a similar problem. “Insure” is what insurance does, ensure is to do or have something to guarantee success. (“Please ensure you’ve packed plenty of reading material.”)

Q: So what’s the official Australian stance on inquire vs enquire?
A: Macquarie Dictionary places its definition with the “i” variant, but also acknowledges that the forms are interchangeable. They go on to say that some organisations, such as newspapers, tend to standardise on the “i” form, but also say that there are those who make a distinction between, for example, an official inquiry and an informal enquiry.

Q: Yes, that’s what we were talking about earlier.
A: An example like “there will be an official inquiry into why last week’s Q&A was so long” uses “inquiry” in a larger, event context – i.e. an “inquiry” in that case could contain many enquiries. So that isn’t the same meaning and is always with an “i”.

Q: And newspapers tend to just use the “i” version for everything. Is this true?
A: Certainly the Fairfax Style Guide prescribes using only the “i” version. For practical reasons it makes sense to opt for just one. Like the Americans.

Q: So how come the Americans get it so easy?
A: Maybe because they proactively chose to make their language simpler over the past 200 years. (Read about some of it here.) Meanwhile the UK/Australian way continues to be a more passive hand-me-down grab bag of lucky dips and mismatched rules.

Q: Nice metaphor. Or is it a simile?
A: We’ll do that another time.

Q: Goodo.
A: One final thing we will say is that regardless of which form you choose, beware of perhaps one of the most common errors that spell check won’t pick up. And that’s writing “enquires” when you mean to put “enquiries” – or vice versa.

Q: Good point, and if I have any further enquires, I’ll let you know.
A: Wait, you just… never mind.

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