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Flounder and Founder

Commonly Confused Words

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The noun flounder refers to a small flatfish. The verb flounder means to struggle, to make clumsy efforts to move or regain one's balance.

The noun founder refers to a person who establishes an institution or settlement. The verb founder means to sink or become disabled.

Also see the usage notes below.

Examples:

  • “Many people flounder about in life because they do not have a purpose, an objective toward which to work.” (George Halas)

  • The Turkish man-of-war Ertogrul foundered at sea and 500 members of her crew were drowned.

Usage Notes:

  • " It is easy to confuse the words founder and flounder, not only because they sound similar but also because the contexts in which they are used tend to overlap. Founder means, in its general and extended use, 'fail or come to nothing; sink out of sight' as in the plan foundered because of lack of organizational backing. Flounder, on the other hand. means 'struggle; move clumsily; be in a state of confusion,' as in new recruits floundering in their first week."
    (Archie Hobson, The Oxford Dictionary of Difficult Words. Oxford University Press, 2004)


  • "The verbs founder and flounder are often confused. Founder comes from a Latin word meaning 'bottom' (as in foundation) and originally referred to knocking enemies down; it is now also used to mean 'to fail utterly, collapse.' Flounder means 'to move clumsily, thrash about,' and hence 'to proceed in confusion.' If John is foundering in Chemistry 1, he had better drop the course; if he is floundering, he may yet pull through."
    (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2000)


  • "The search-and-replace school of editing assumes every use of the verb flounder is a mistaken attempt to say founder. Flounder might have originated through such confusion, but its meaning is sufficiently different to justify keeping the word around. To founder is to sink; to flounder is to struggle clumsily, like a fish out of water. So if you're sure a company is going under, it's foundering; if there's an outside chance it could right itself, it's floundering."
    (Bill Walsh, Lapsing Into a Comma, Contemporary Books, 2000)

Practice:

(a) The horse [floundered or foundered] _____ around in the soft snow, whinnying frantically.

(b) The Carpathia was 58 miles from the Titanic when it received the distress call from the [floundering or foundering] _____ ship.

Answers to Practice Exercises

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

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