The times in my life when I've floundered occurred when I was thrashing around, typically trying to stay afloat or get back to the surface

I now hear that I also floundered when I failed - presumably just a confusion of two similar-sounding words.

Has the the confusion become standard English?

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    What does a dictionary say about it? – Jim Jan 24 at 22:07
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    Please look up flounder and founder and then explain why the definitions do not help. – Cascabel Jan 24 at 22:37
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    What confusion? Floundering is the act of thrashing about but losing, or to struggle mentally and could apply equally to tying to fight drowning or fighting against failure. Founder as I know it is a nautical term implying a ship breaking up and becoming unseaworthy (or sinking) and doesn't imply any kind of struggle. – Patrick Hughes Jan 24 at 22:58
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    @PatrickHughes “The project floundered” (intended to mean that the project tanked and failed) is the kind of usage I believe the question is asking about. Though I have to agree with Jim and Cascabel here: if the question is about whether such usages are considered standard in English, dictionaries should include this information, and looking up the words in a few good ones should be enough to give an answer. If that doesn’t give an answer, then the question isn’t really about whether it’s standard or not and the precise object should be clarified. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 24 at 23:06
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    To 'found' a foundation has nothing to do with the verb 'find'. To 'founder' in one's work is nothing to do with the verb 'find' but more to do with the verb 'found'. To founder is to struggle to stay balanced - and relates to the concept of foundation. To flounder is to act as the fish called a flounder and is to flap about aimlessly and helplessly. – Nigel J Jan 25 at 3:39

The simple answer is that some people make the mistake of confusing the two terms - but that doesn't mean the mistake has become "standard English". There is a clear semantic difference between the two words. The following definitions, from Merriam-Webster, demonstrate the difference in meaning:

intransitive verb

  1. to struggle to move or obtain footing : thrash about wildly
    The poor horse was floundering in the mud.
  2. to proceed or act clumsily or ineffectually
    the normally surefooted governor floundered a moment like a prize pupil caught unprepared –– Time


intransitive verb

  1. to become disabled
    especially: to go lame
  2. to give way : COLLAPSE
  3. to become submerged : SINK
  4. to come to grief : FAIL

Oxford Living Dictionaries provides a further clarity:

founder 3

  1. (of a ship) fill with water and sink.
    ‘six drowned when the yacht foundered off the Florida coast’

    1.1 (of a plan or undertaking) fail or break down, typically as a result of a particular problem or setback.
    ‘the talks foundered on the issue of reform’

Here's my own summary of how the two words might apply to a given situation:

Sometimes something (e.g. a project) will indeed both flounder (struggle, or be ineffective) and founder (collapse or fail). However, there's a sequence here: a project can't first founder and then at a later point flounder. As an analogy, you can't die and then get sick.

Note also that something that flounders may not ending up foundering, and something that founders may not first have floundered. To use the mortality analogy again, you can die without getting sick, and you can get sick without then dying.

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    I think the terms are most likely to be validly conflated when, for example, a ship gets hung up on a reef. – Hot Licks Jan 26 at 18:05
  • @HotLicks quite possibly. I think that floundering in relation to a ship suggests it has lost its keel, rudder or trim and is at the mercy of currents, wind or waves, whereas if it has foundered it has either run aground or sunk. But stuck on a reef while heavy seas swing it wildly could indeed conflate the two! – Chappo Jan 26 at 23:14
  • @Chappo Yes, if a vessel is floundering because of mechanical failure it is more likely to end up parallel to the waves and then be more likely to founder as the waves break over it and fill it with water. – BoldBen Feb 24 at 12:26

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