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Neither are great options, but 'floundering' sure beats 'foundering'

If someone asks you a question, and you find yourself struggling to answer, did you flounder? Or did you founder?

The answer is "flounder." But these two verbs sound so much alike and have such similar meanings, don't feel bad if you were wrong.

In fact, a listener recently asked us if we could clear up the confusion between "founder" and "flounder."

Let's start by unpacking "founder." This one comes into English from the French word "fondrer" which means to submerge or to plunge to the bottom.

Merriam-Webster has a helpful way to remember this. They say, "When something founders, it loses its foundation." Basically, the bottom falls out.

Here's where it starts to get complicated.

"Founder" can also mean to stumble and fall. If a horse founders, its trotting days could come to a tragic end. It can also mean to fail -- a marriage can founder.

"Flounder," on the other hand, means to move clumsily, to struggle, to not make very good progress. It's not hard to see why someone might confuse these.

Fortunately, American Heritage Dictionary has a great way to remember the difference: "If John is foundering in Chemistry 101, he better drop the course. If he's floundering, he may still pull through."

So, neither are great options, but if you have to choose one, go with flounder. Unless sea bass is on the menu. 

Can you think of other words that sound similar and also have similar meanings? Let us know at rkruth@umich.edu or acurzan@umich.edu.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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