Q: A friend of mine, a Stevie Wonder fan, has a “Make Sure You’re Sure” ringtone on his cell. After listening to it a few hundred times, the phrase “make sure” started to sound funny to me. Is it proper English?
A: The phrase “make sure” is a fine old usage dating back to the 16th century, and Stevie Wonder is using it properly in that song, part of the score and soundtrack he composed for the 1991 Spike Lee movie Jungle Fever.
In its earliest usage, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase meant “to make something certain as an end or result … to preclude risk of failure.”
The OED’s earliest example in writing is from Cardinal William Allen’s A Defence and Declaration of the Catholike Churches Doctrine, Touching Purgatory (1565):
“And therefore to make sure, I humbly submit my selfe, to the iudgement of suche [as] … are made the lawful pastors of our soules.”
Here are some more OED citations:
1698: “To make sure, he made another Shot at her.” (From a description of a tiger hunt in John Fryer’s A New Account of East-India and Persia.)
1891: “It is difficult to make sure of finding the birds.” (From Chambers’s Journal.)
The phrase is still used in that sense. But “make sure of” is also used to mean “to act so as to be certain of getting or winning; to secure,” as the OED says.
Oxford has citations ranging from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The earliest is from a letter written in 1673 by Sir William Temple: “A Peace … cannot fail us here provided we make sure of Spain.”
The phrase can also be followed by a clause, as in this example from Frances Eliza Millett Notley’s novel The Power of the Hand (1888): “That fellow rode up to the house to make sure Tristram was away.”
In another practice dating from the 19th century, the OED says “make sure” is used loosely to mean “to feel certain, be convinced.”
This citation is from Frederick C. Selous’s Travel and Adventure in South-east Africa (1893): “I made sure I should get finer specimens later on.”
Stevie Wonder uses it in this looser sense, and we’ll end with a few lines of his lyrics:
Well the night is young
And the stars are out
And your eyes are all aglow
And you say you feel
Ways you’ve never felt
But are you sure, make sure you’re sure.
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