Wednesday, 15 July 2009

-ise and -ize

I had to draft a letter for an association of which I am a committee member. Having drawn up what I thought was a suitable wording, I submitted it to the other members of the committee for their comments. I was rather surprised that two of them replied complaining about my use of the spellings organization and publicize.
Please use English spellings of the words organisation and publicise.

Since I was writing on behalf of the association, not in a personal capacity, I changed the spellings to please them. But they were wrong in thinking that the -ize spelling is not “English” (ie not BrE).
What does “the dictionary” say? Here’s the great OED.
-iseː a frequent spelling of -IZE, suffix forming vbs., which see.

And it doesn’t even list “organisation” and the like alphabetically. You will find this word only under the z spelling.

Let’s be clear: -ise is British only, but -ize is both British and American. And there are many British people, including me and the authors of the OED, who write -ize.
Many years ago I submitted an article to JIPA, which has (or then had) a policy of encouraging British authors to use British spellings (colour, centre etc) and American authors to use American spellings (color, center etc). Fine. In the article I followed my usual habit of using the British (yes!) spellings velarized, nasalization and so on. JIPA’s copy editor, trying to be helpful, and mistakenly believing -ise to be the only British spelling, “corrected” many of these to -s-. Unfortunately, this being before the days of find-and-replace, he or she also missed many cases of -z-. The result was an inconsistent mess, and I had to insist that the spellings all be changed back to what I had written originally.

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Before I go, I’d like to draw to people’s attention an excellent Language Log posting about the pronunciation of Uyghur names, with sound clips.

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Because... this blog will now be suspended until 10 August.


  1. Yeah, I find the -ize spelling perfectly acceptable and understand the reasoning behind it.

    However, I support consistency and I prefer to see -ise.

  2. Wikipedia calls the custom of using "-ize" alongside British spellings "Oxford spelling" (see, because nowadays Oxford UP is one of very few publishers that do that. The UN also uses "Oxford spelling".

  3. The French ruined English spelling :)

  4. @SCAnderson: You say you "support consistency and I prefer to see -ise". What is wrong with consistently using -ize?

  5. You can't consistently use -ize. You need a mixture of -ize and -ise.

    You can, however, always substitute -ise for -ize.

  6. vp wanted to know why this is so. Basically, because -ize is "justified" where there's a connection to Greek -iz-, including modern English words formed with this still productive morpheme, and whether they came via French or not, but there are other words that only coincidentally have -ise from all kinds of etymological backgrounds, eg surprise, advertise &c. and spelling these latter with a z is generally felt to be wrong.

  7. Well, there's also "size", "capsize" and "prize", and their derivatives that can't be spelled with "ise". So we will never be completely consistent.

    Wikipedia led me to the OED's "Ask Oxford" page at
    "[s]pellings such as organisation would have struck many older British writers as rather French-looking", and attributes the increase in popularity of "-ise" to anti-Americanism.

  8. Riht, but the always-"ise" list is much longer, and most people wouldn't put size and prize in the same group, while quite a few -ise verbs will, consciously or not, be counted to the -ize suffix verbs.

  9. Pity that Wells missed the chance to title this entry "Damn your -ize."

  10. On Uyghur –

    I was listening to a BBC program the other day about the unrest in Xinjiang. The interviewer and interviewee were both talking about "Weejers". After a couple of minutes, I couldn't stand it any more and turned it off.

  11. S.C. Anderson: I suppose, then, that you support the consistent use of -er (in place of inconsistent -er, -re) and of -or (in place of inconsistent -or, -our?

  12. I'm working on a collaboration website ( the tagline of which was "organised discussions". Since the site will be international and there are considerably more Americans than Britons I grudgingly changed it to "organized discussions" only to make the happy discovery described in this blog post and find that "ize" (for Greek-derived words) is as much British as it is American. Hurrah!

  13. No, I use British English, John Cowan, and therefore I write -re and -our. That is consistent.

    In America, they usually use -or, but they cannot in words such as 'glamour'. This is not consistent.

    Therefore, I do not understand what seems to be a criticism.

  14. I was taught at a British grammar school that -ise was the only acceptable spelling. I'm 24 now. I was surprised to learn, two years ago, that -ize is also acceptable.

    I find that most people who criticise the language of others get it wrong themselves. There are other words and phrases considered American by some that were British until recently. A good example here is the word "soccer": if you watch the very old British film "The Sporting Life", you can see how "football" could once mean rugby football as well, and that "soccer" was used in Britain at the time. Also, "gotten" as the past tense of "get" was used in Northern England widely at the time of the SED and is still used by some Scots today.

    1. I was taught at both a British private school and a British grammar school that -ize was the correct form and -ise was regarded as a spelling mistake, - apart from the words which should be -ise. I'm 64 now; perhaps the difference is one of time!

      The -ise form gained significant ground in the 1970's and when informed by my peers and superior managers that -ize was American English, I have always delighted in producing a Pocket Oxford and 'rubbing their noses in it'. :-) (It made them think twice before criticizing me again and did not prevent me from climbing the 'greasy pole' to the top).

      I was disappointed when The Times replaced the use of -ize by -ise in the 1990's; but then I was also disappointed when they removed the classified advertisements from the front page and made it look like the all the other newspapers!

      The reason why -ize and not -ise is used in the USA is because they declared their independence as separate states and ceased to be under British influence and control from 1776 onwards; the Frenchification of British English did not start until well after that time. Thus the USA uses the original British form extant at the time of their separation from us.

  15. "Such words as 'glamour'"? There are no other words "such as 'glamour'" in American English; there is only "glamour" itself (an import from Scots, by the way), and the marginal case of "Saviour", only when capitalized and referring to Jesus, and only as used by some Americans.

    We write consistently honor, honorable, honorary rather than honour, honourable, honorary (with occasional lapses into honourary), a spelling distinction that represents neither present reality nor past history. If American spellings squick you, so be it, but it's silly to claim that British spellings are more "consistent".

  16. You have a point.

    But when the British spellings change in certain forms, the rule is a pattern and easy enough to apply. It doesn't require people to know the roots of the word.

  17. Ed:"Gotten" as the past tense of "get?" You mean past participle, don't you? I've never heard it used as a past tense. A great deal of Scottish has found its way into American English...much of it very early in our history.

    S.C.: I have seen "glamor," especially in older books. I think "glamour" as an exception is partly due to Glamour magazine (which has been at every grocery store checkstand in America for seventy years). I do not believe that "glamor" is considered incorrect, just old-fashioned.

    We should not conflate the *suffix* "ise/ize" which can become "isation/ization" with words that for some other reason end with "ise" or "ize," like "prize" and "surprise."

    I cannot think of any examples of the suffix which are ever spelled "ise" in American English. I think we're pretty consistent that way.

    I would see such spellings from an American writer as an affectation...pretending to be British. Such affectations are fairly marquees are as likely to say "theatre" as "theater." Glamour magazine probably started out as such an affectation.

  18. Clearly how /aɪz/ (and /ɪz/) is/are spelled when not corresponding to the morpheme derived from Greek -ιζειν can have no bearing on the spelling of that morpheme, nor the other way around, if you care about etymology, and neither can glamo(u)r have any bearing on the -o(u)r suffix, which it doesn't contain.

    If one really were after simplicity in spelling rules one should write "-ise" AND "-or" everywhere, since nobody writes "actour", or indeed pick any spelling for /aɪz/ and /ə(ɹ)/ respectively and stick to them. I daresay nobody really wants that, since the main function of spelling rules is to make one able to brand one's fellow man as an ignoramus or a foreigner!

    I don't know when the French changed the spelling of those two suffixes, but it is in the one case quite possible and in the other quite certain that they did so because Old French spelling was pretty phonetic. Due to spontaneous changes in the language in its development from Latin the suffix which the Romans had pronounced /oːr/ and spelled OR had come to be pronounced with a diphthong, [øʊ] in Central French and [oʊ] in Norman French, and was spelled <eu> or <ou> accordingly. It may be that the /iz/ suffix got spelled <is> because at one time the letter <z> denoted /ts/ or /dz/ in French spelling, and the suffix was pronounced with /z/, which was spelled <s> (sic!), but I suspect that change was later, and perhaps prompted by anti-Italian sentiment!

    It is significant that glamour is a Scots word, since Scots used -our in many words, like "gouvernour" where English English at least now doesn't use it.