The Grammarphobia Blog

A flounder out of water

Q: My pet peeve is hearing people mix up “flounder” and “founder.” Do you think we’re losing the distinction between them?

A: The verb “flounder,” as you know, means to stumble or thrash about like a fish out of water while “founder” means to collapse, fail completely, or sink like a ship.

My grammar book Woe Is I gives these examples of the two words at work: “Harry flounders from one crisis to another. His business foundered when the market collapsed.”

You’re right that these words are often confused these days, but I don’t think this is a lost cause. Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) still maintain the distinction.

A Usage Note in American Heritage points out that the verb “founder” comes from a Latin word meaning bottom (think “foundation”). The term originally referred to knocking your enemies down.

Anyone still confused by these two words may be helped by remembering that a flounder flops around (that is, “flounders”) when it’s out of water.

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