Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you

-ise or -ize? Is -ize American? (1/3)

5 Comments

 

spaghetti_help

In brief…

  • The -ize spelling is exclusively US = MYTH
  • For words with an -ise/-ize or -yse/-yze alternation, the -ize spelling is used in British and World English as well as in US English.
  • (The same applies to derivatives, e.g. organisation/organization, organisable/organizable, etc.)
  • The -ize spelling is far from being a modern invention.
  • Some authoritative British journalism style guides recommend the -ise spelling.
  • Overall, there is a marked preference in British English writing for the -ise, -yse spellings.
  • While many words can be spelled/spelt either way, a small group always end in -ise (see later in the blog).
  • Words spelled/spelt -yse/yze, e.g. analyse, are best written exclusively as -yse in British English.

An evergreen myth

The BBC’s Today programme on Radio 4 is the premier UK radio news programme, with episodes lasting three hours Monday to Friday, and two hours on Saturdays.

In their last ten-minute slot before signing off, they often have a light-hearted linguisitc snippet. So it was that on 28 November there was discussion about the alleged decline in children’s spelling. As if to disprove that trend, we had a ten-year-old official “child genius” who could rattle off the spelling of obscure polysyllables such as eleemosynary.

At some point, the question arose of whether another sesquipedalian word, lyophilisation, should be spelt -isation or -ization. There seemed to be a consensus among guests and presenters that the spelling with -s- was the  “English” (Ahem. Read “British”) spelling and the second “American”.

Many British people also believe that there is a hard-and-fast rule: in American English you spell such words -ize, and in British English you spell them -ise.

Not so!

For the dozens of common verbs which can be spelled/spelt either way, e.g.

glamo(u)rize / glamourise
romanticize / romanticise
socialize / socialise
trivialize / trivialise,

it is true that the -z spelling is standard in US usage. [1]

However, in Britain, too, it is perfectly acceptable to use the -ize spelling, though the -ise spelling is more widely used [2].  The only problem is that British people who are not editors may well turn up their noses at the-ize spelling, and assume you are a) trying to be unpatriotically transatlantic, or, worse still, b) a Trumpnik. It will also depend on whether you are writing for an organization that has a particular house style, and who the eventual readers are.

St Jerome, unable to lay hands on his dictionary, tries to remember if “televise” has an s or a z.

Who sez which to use?

Different authorities and institutions have different views. Oxford University Press, for example, favours the -ize spelling, but Cambridge University Press prefers -ise, as do The GuardianThe Economist and The Telegraph. Choosing one form or the other is part of their “house style”: the rules they lay down for their writers.

While you may think it doesn’t matter — and, indeed, in the grand scheme of things (whatever that is), it matters not a jot — it does matter to editors and to journal publishers because they  have to make a decision about which style to plump for, and then apply it consistently.

For example, a major academic journal publisher has this in its UK style bible for editors:

“Where UK authors have used -ise spellings throughout their papers in a consistent fashion, please do not change. Where there is inconsistency, use –ize.”

The last sentence of the advice thus shows that, even for the UK, this publisher prioritiz/ses the -z- spelling.

If you are not bound by a house style, you can make up your own mind whether to use -ise or -ize. It’s a matter of personal preference, like Lapsang Souchong vs Green tea.

The important thing is to be consistent within a document, or series of documents, for a given client.

But do bear in mind that if you are writing for the British market, some readers may scratch their heads when they see -ize spellings, so that could distract them from your message. On the other hand, many Americans will simply consider the –ise spelling wrong.

ize-keep-calm-and-stay-organized

Or should that be “organised”?


If you enjoy this blog, and find it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up (in the right-hand column, above the Twitter feed, if you’re reading this on laptop, and under the blog if you’re reading it on a tablet, mobile, etc.) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I blog regularly about issues of English usage, word histories,  writing tips, and Spanish.


So, which words must I always spell -ise, no matter whether I’m British, American, etc?

Here are some very common, and a few rather less common, ones:

 

advertise

 

circumcise disguise expertise revise
advise

 

comprise emprise franchise supervise
affranchise

 

compromise enfranchise improvise surmise
apprise despise entreprise incise surprise
arise devise exercise merchandise televise
chastise disenfranchise excise reprise

 

treatise

 

They are spelt/spelled like that for several reasons, but often because the -ise part came into English from French words that had never had the Greek/Latin -ize spelling. [3]

One that is a bit of an odd person out and potentially confusion is prise/prize, in the meaning of “Use force in order to move, move apart, or open (something):I tried to prise Joe’s fingers away from the stick.” Even though its origin is French prise, in US dictionaries it has a z, which means it would be a homonym of prize = to value. However, as the comment below by Laura D suggest, nowadays people don’t write it that way, and dictionaries need to update. 


[1] For example, if you look up organize in the ordinary Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the -ise spelling is not acknowledged at all; it is only when you look at the medical dictionary that you see it.

[2] As noted under various entries in The Cambridge Guide to English Usage.

[3] For example, advertise came directly from Anglo-Norman and Middle French a(d)vertiss-. Even so, the OED notes: “From an early date the ending was frequently either apprehended [i.e. “interpreted and understood”] as or assimilated to -ize suffix”. Televise, in contrast, is a back-formation from television, and thus the s faithfully respects the word’s etymology.

Advertisements

Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

5 thoughts on “-ise or -ize? Is -ize American? (1/3)

  1. Dear Jeremy

    Why do you say “While many words can be spelled/spelt …”? I am fighting a rearguard action on favour of “spelt” and I should grateful for your support in this endeavour.See a blog I wrote on retaining irregular verb forms:-

    http://peterhousehold.blogspot.ie/2012/07/irregverbs.html

    By the way in an 18th century novel I was reading yesterday I came across “catched”. But I failed to make a note of it and can’t now find the place.

    Regards

    *Peter Household *

    **

    Glenduff

    Mitchelstown

    Co Cork

    Ireland

    Tel 00353 25 86491

    Mobile 00353 85 7082228

    Like

    • Hi, Peter

      Actually, I was just reflecting the split in usage between the two forms. I would always use “spelt”, but as the bulk of my readers are US or Canada, it seemed appropriate to put the form they would feel happy with. You might like to consult my entry for “spell” in Fowler. Kind regards, J. PS: Thanks for the note about “catched”.

      Like

  2. Hi, Jeremy.

    When I got to the end of this post, I was taken aback to read that prise/prize in the sense of prying something is spelled with a “z” in American English. In 45 years of reading in the US, I don’t ever remember seeing “prize” for that meaning. I went directly to Merriam-Webster and American Heritage, only to find that they agree with your statement.

    I asked my husband. He also doesn’t remember seeing it spelled any way but “prise”. So I started a discussion thread in the Grammar Geeks group on LinkedIn (not sure whether you’re a member, but here’s the link: https://www.linkedin.com/groups/1822758/1822758-6210479230317322242). A few other Americans confirmed that they’d never seen it spelled “prize” either. One member said he’d done an ngram search, and the “prize” version turned out to have been more common in both US and UK English until the mid-20th century. They began diverging in favor of “prise” around 1935 in the UK and 1960 in the US (yes, I know the limitations of ngrams, but they are somewhat useful). Here’s a link to the ngram for UK and US combined: https://is.gd/A4hw2R

    Sorry for the long post. I was just so surprised that I couldn’t pass on commenting.

    Laura

    Like

    • Hi, Laura

      Thanks for the information and the research. I didn’t know about the “prize” spelling through personal experience, i.e. by having read it; I only noted what US dictionaries say. That spelling also surprised me when I came across it a while ago, as it seems confusing and counter-etymological. I’ll look into the matter further when I have a moment. Thanks for bringing it to my attention (in a tactful and non-hostile way, which isn’t always the case). And thanks for reading the blog. Kind regards, J.

      Like

  3. Pingback: Weekly translation favorites (Dec 29-Jan 5)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s