The following sentence seems grammatically incorrect to me as a native English speaker (should be ensure, not enforce):

People then create laws to enforce that these regulations are being followed.

That said, I can’t quite figure out what is wrong with it. Ensure and enforce are both verbs, and are often grammatically interchangeable with one another.

  1. Is there something grammatically wrong with the given sentence, or is it just a strange wording?

  2. What exactly is wrong with it?

6 Answers 6


Ensure and enforce are indeed similar in that they are both transitive (i.e. they take a direct object), but not all transitive verbs are equal. Enforce only takes a noun or noun phrase (such as the rules) as its direct object, while ensure is more versatile (from a grammatical standpoint): while it can take a noun or noun phrase, it can also take a content clause (also called complement clause or that-clause; such as that the rules are followed) as its object. This has been established by usage and convention, and it is rare to see enforce paired with that. In this case, convention dictates the grammatical constraints, and therefore it is grammatically incorrect to use a that-clause as the object of certain verbs (such as enforce). Ngrams shows relative usages:

As you mention, you could replace enforce with ensure:

People then create laws to ensure that these regulations are being followed.

Or, if you want to keep the strength of enforce, you would need to change the direct object from a content clause to a noun phrase:

People then create laws to enforce these regulations.

  • So this answers my first question (it's definitely wrong, or at least, extremely unconventional). But why is it wrong? What grammatical constraints are violated? Or is convention alone considered sufficient? Commented Mar 23, 2012 at 16:08
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    @JohnDoucette If it were conventional to use enforce that, it would be correct, and would sound fine to you. But it isn't conventional, and that is what defines the language. Convention is eminently acceptable as a reason for choosing one usage over another. It's like asking why prevent that crimes are being committed is incorrect. Grammar per se isn't violated, but since the usage has never been preferred, it has become questionable to the point of sounding wrong.
    – Daniel
    Commented Mar 23, 2012 at 16:10
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    The reason why it's wrong is that enforce does not govern a tensed object complement clause. That means its direct object has to be a real noun or noun phrase like the law or the deportation order from the judge, but it can't be a that-clause like that they're being followed. This is a fact about the verb enforce; every verb has its own pattern of prohibitions, affordances, and requirements like these. It's part of what the verb means. Commented Mar 23, 2012 at 17:06
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    @John Lawler, would that you made your comment an answer of its own, and it would be the finest answer here.
    – nohat
    Commented Mar 23, 2012 at 18:27
  • Creating laws can neither enforce, nor ensure that something does or does not happen for the simple reason that laws can be broken.
    – Brad
    Commented Apr 26, 2012 at 18:16

Apart from the fine answers already given here that focus on grammaticality, it bears noting that laws cannot enforce anything- they can merely prescribe and proscribe, but not enforce.
In fact they themselves require enforcement- thus the existence of "law enforcement officers".


Did you see this sentence in print somewhere? I would guess that someone did a cut and paste editing job.

If you use the word "ensure" the sentence is fine:

People then create laws to ensure that these regulations are being followed.

If you want to use the word enforce, the sentence would be better as:

People then create laws to enforce the regulations.

  • I'm grading student essays. The writer is not a native English speaker, so I'm not surprised to see unconventional wordings, but I'm wondering what to tell them in this case. That is, I want to help them learn, but am finding it hard to specify exactly why this is wrong (other than convention). Commented Mar 23, 2012 at 16:07
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    I agree with @TimLymington's answer. "Ensure that" is an acceptable construction, "enforce that" is not. Also, I would say that "enforce" has the meaning of "compel obedience to," so adding something like "that these regulations are being followed" (even if grammatical) would be redundant.
    – JLG
    Commented Mar 23, 2012 at 16:20
  • @John Doucette, I think the most useful lesson for students to learn is that in many cases there is no specifying exactly what is wrong. All you can do is to say: This is just not how English works (as John Lawler eloquently points out in another comment). Then make sure they have the knowledge and tools to determine for themselves if any given phrase they have constructed follows the conventions of standard English usage.
    – Shoe
    Commented Mar 23, 2012 at 20:31

I think both sentences are GRAMMATICALLY correct, at least in the sense that all the parts of speech are used in their proper places. The problem is that "enforce that ..." doesn't make sense in context.

Just because two words are both verbs doesn't mean that you can take any sentence that uses one, replace it with the other, and the sentence will still be coherent. Like, "People then create laws to ensure that these regulations are being followed." "ensure" is a transitive verb. "eat" is a transitive verb. But if I replace "ensure" with "eat" the sentence is jibberish.

  • I would say that 'enforce' takes only a direct object, so 'enforce that' is in fact ungrammatical. But YMMV. Commented Mar 24, 2012 at 19:14
  • @Tim Good point, I can't think of a sentence where "enforce that" would be valid, not off the top of my head anyway. There's probably a grammar rule operating here whose name I am unaware of.
    – Jay
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 14:00

What exactly does your third sentence mean? Enforce and ensure are certainly both verbs, but so is prevent. They are not synonyms, so they are not interchangeable in that sense. Enforce that has no logical derivation and does not appear in the dictionaries; but it is comprehensible, so whether it is 'wrong' depends on your definition.

  • I think what I want to know is why it has no logical derivation. As to appearing in dictionaries, do combinations of words typically appear there, and would the failure of a combination to appear really indicate that said combination cannot be used? Commented Mar 23, 2012 at 16:11
  • @John: 'cannot be used in idiomatic English', because a dictionary is a list of the ways that words are in fact used. Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 14:15
  • To clarify: I meant that a dictionary is not an exhaustive list of all valid English 2-grams, instead containing only all valid English words. Consequently, if a pair of words did not appear together in a dictionary, I would not consider this proof that combining them was invalid English. Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 16:06
  • @John: One (or both) of us is confused. A good dictionary will give a list of prepositions with which a verb can be properly used. English is not a mathematical theorem, nor even a game of wff'n'proof. Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 21:45
  • Thanks for the clarification. Possibly I have never seen a good dictionary (or at least, never looked for associated lists of prepositions). As to the math, since my students are mathematics majors, not withstanding the nature of English, I like to have logical sounding answers for them. :) Commented Mar 27, 2012 at 1:20

Law enforcement is the province of the police. Just because a law is enacted (by politicians), doesn't mean it is enforced, or even enforceable (by the police).

Ensure sounds more correct, but, strictly speaking, it isn't. Simply enacting a law doesn't ensure (with 100% certainty) that the law will never be broken.

I would plump for:

'People then legislate to decree that these regulations must be followed.'

  • And how is decree any better than ensure, as far as making certain a law will never be broken? Commented Apr 27, 2012 at 18:12
  • Decree means to state that it must be so -- an official order from a legal authority. This is not the same as ensuring it will indeed be so.
    – Brad
    Commented Apr 28, 2012 at 9:06

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