- Inspector Morse was a snob and a pedant — but you probably knew that already.
- The -ize spelling is exclusively US = MYTH.
- The -ize spelling is far from being a modern invention. In fact, you could say it’s Greek.
- 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.
Damn your -ize, Morse!
In Ghost in the Machine (1987), an episode of the British TV series Inspector Morse (1987–2000), Morse ritually humiliates his long-suffering sidekick, DS Lewis, as you can witness in this YouTube extract.
(Someone should have told Morse that being an Oxonian does not entitle you to belittle others – oh, but hang on, that’s part of the characterisation.)
To give non-Morseians a bit of background, they are looking at what purports to be a suicide note, supposedly written by the aristo, art collector and general toff Sir Julius Hanbury. Morse assumes, naturally, that an aristo knows how to spell. That’s why he smells a rat.
Morse Now, how does he spell ‘Apologise’? …with an s. ‘Civilised.’ Another s.
Lewis What’s wrong with that?
Morse (Morse glowers at Lewis as if he were something he has just scraped off his shoe, and expostulates triumphantly.) It’s illiterate1, that’s what.
The Oxford English Dictionary uses a z for words that end in -/ʌɪz/. And so did Sir Julius. Look…here. So, HE didn’t write it.
So, do Brits use the -ize spelling?
As with most things in language, there’s no simple yes/no answer.
Some do, some don’t. (See the table later on for organize, which also shows that the -ise spelling, though rather rare, is also used on the far side (from me, in the UK) of the pond.)
Sure enough, the OED uses the -ize spelling, and its (chiefly etymological) reasons for doing so are set out in a note at the entry for –ize, part of which is reproduced at the end of this blog2.
But, in contrast, many British speakers would take the opposite view, and call -ize “illiterate” or an “Americanism”, which, let’s face it, is in some people’s view much the same thing, or, actually, rather worse.
It has even been suggested, in a comment by Gerwyn Moseley on my earlier blog, that Brits who insist on changing -ize to -ise are indulging in hypercorrection.
People have also asked me why I use the -ize spelling , the answer to which is that I follow OUP and Collins style — even though I’m sure I used to write -ise.
As mentioned in my earlier blog on the topic, several British style guides favour -ise, and The Times changed to that spelling in 1992. As for dictionaries, even Oxford show the -ise spelling as an alternative in their online dictionary (NB: this is not the OED.) Collins English dictionary shows only the -ize form, as does Macmillan; Cambridge shows the -ize form as the headword, but with a very visible note underneath about British spelling.
Life being finite – no matter what anyone tries to tell you – it is impossible for me to look at all examples that might be relevant, so I have been very selective. In the Global Corpus of Web-based English, the figures for the lemma ORGANIZE are shown below (yes, many will be the adjective, I know, but “la vida es un soplo” [life is a mere breath]). The bottom row sums it all up.
all forms -ize/ise
I also looked at a far less frequent lemma, civilise/civilize, which yields less extreme percentages but a similar general outlook for US English, but a much more even balance between the two forms in British English:
civilize, -ized, -izing
Brit = 53 (29/19/5) US = 126 (79/31/16)
Brit = 76 (35/41) US = 10 (8/2)
Percentage all forms -ize/ise:
The difference between the percentages for the two words in British English makes me wonder if organize/-ise, is a sort of test case: being so much more frequent, it automatically presses those “ah, British spelling!” alarm buttons for British English speakers that “civilize/-ise” doesn’t.
Is -ize American?
No. No. And no, again.
It is not a dastardly modern “American invention”, as many British speakers seem to think.
Spellings in -ize go back to the fifteenth century; organize is first recorded in the OED from 1425, in an English translation from French:
The brayne after þe lengþ haþ 3 ventriclez, And euery uentricle haþ 3 parties & in euery partie is organized [L. organizatur] one vertue.
The OED’s earliest example for realize is from 1611, from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, a bilingual dictionary by Randle Cotgrave:
Realiser, to realize, to make of a reall condition, estate, or propertie; to make reall.
Dr Johnson spelled such words as –ize in his 1755 dictionary, although the first OED-recorded use of realise is, as it happens, in a letter of 30 December of that same year from Dr J:
Designs are nothing in human eyes till they are realised by execution.
As a friend and colleague pointed out, Jane Austen spelt surprize thus, as did Shakespeare, Milton, Defoe, John Evelyn, Vanbrugh, Addison, Wordsworth … all “in despite of” etymology, since the word comes from Anglo-Norman and Old French surprise, past participle of surprendre.
A search for -ize in the online text of Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778) retrieves apologize, civilized, monopolize, recognize, stigmatize, sympathize, and the very modern-sounding journalize (= “to make a journal entry for”, I think) and Londonize (in its first OED citation).
It’s all Greek to me
The -ize ending is very ancient indeed: it comes to us from Classical Greek.
A politically important word in which it featured was the ancestor of our modern ostracize. I find it thrilling (Note to self: Must get out more often; PS to self: don’t bother) to think that there is a direct line of descent from ὀστρακίζειν ostracize from the Athens of 2,500 years ago to its modern descendant.
Early Christian writers Latinized some key Greek words ending with the -izo suffix, such as “to baptize” – βαπτίζειν – which then passed into English from French baptiser. The first citation for the word (1297) is spelt baptize rather than baptise (though most of the other OED citations have the s spelling).
Which words are only written -ise?
My related blog on the topic lists the most common ones.
There are also various rules of thumb which, at a pinch, might help.
If there is a noun or adjective to which you can relate the verb, then the verb can most probably be written either way. For example:
final –> finalise/finalize
real –> realise/realize
critic –> criticise/criticize
Conversely, if you want to remember which words can only be spelt -ise, it has been suggested that you should ask yourself if there is an -ation derivative. If there ain’t — e.g. no *comprisation, enterprisation, enfranchisation, revisation, etc. — then the verb must be spelt with an s in the first place.
Applying my rule of thumb, you can tell that words like the ones below can only ever be written -ise because there is no current, existing word to which they can be related that is not a derivative of themselves, if you see what I mean (e.g. enfranchisement, supervision).
Some of the verbs always written -ise are back-formed from nouns, like televise television, or have a related nouns, like advertise advertisement. So, if you remember that the nouns advertisement and television both have -is-, you are more likely to spell the verbs correctly.
If you want to check online which words can be spelt either way, the Oxford Dictionary Online shows the alternatives very clearly, and it has both World English and US English versions.
There is also the oddity of a vessel apparently named Enterprize (see note 3 at the end of this blog).
So where does -ise come from?
In a nutshell, some of the words for which either spelling is possible came from French. And in French the ending is always -iser. Examples are civilise/civilize, and humanise/humanize. Many of the words which can only ever be spelt –ise came into English directly from French: apprise/ comprise/surmise/surprise. They are formed on the basis of the French past participle ending in -is: think of the French phrase Vous avez compris? (“Have you understood?”)
I haven’t said yet that the seesaw between s and z obviously applies to derived words as well:
globalization / globalisation
localization / localisation
It also applies to verbs which have a y before the s or z, such as analyse, catalyse and paralyse, where -yse is the norm in British English and -yze the rule in American English.
Why do some people dislike verbs such as prioritize and diarize?
That’s the trillion-dollar question…
 Polysemy is a marvellous thing. Morse uses “illiterate” here in its extended meaning of “poorly written”, not its literal one of “unable to write”. That corresponds to sense 1.3 here. In a Guardian piece, I used it in a similar way. In a comment on that piece, someone attempted to wisecrack that the word didn’t mean what I thought it meant, thereby proving that they were illiterate in sense 1.2
 OED note
“…; in modern French the suffix has become -iser, alike in words from Greek, as baptiser, évangéliser, organiser, and those formed after them from Latin, as civiliser, cicatriser, humaniser. Hence, some have used the spelling -ise in English, as in French, for all these words, and some prefer -ise in words formed in French or English from Latin elements, retaining -ize for those formed < Greek elements. But the suffix itself, whatever the element to which it is added, is in its origin the Greek -ιζειν, Latin -izāre; and, as the pronunciation is also with z, there is no reason why in English the special French spelling should be followed, in opposition to that which is at once etymological and phonetic.”
Oxford blog notes: “The use of ‘-ize’ spellings is part of the house style at Oxford University Press. It reflects the style adopted in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (which was published in parts from 1884 to 1928) and in the first editions of Hart’s Rules (1904) and the Authors’ and Printers’ Dictionary (1905). These early works chose the ‘-ize’ spellings as their preferred forms for etymological reasons: the -ize ending corresponds to the Greek verb endings -izo and –izein.”
 Discussion about the spelling “enterprize” from an earlier version of this blog.
Ted A: Jeremy, a certain 5th-Rate Vessel of the Royal Navy was launched on 28 April 1708 in Plymouth, England. Its name was HMS Enterprize. I’m unable find the reason it was spelled that way. Any clues?
Tom Thomson Are you sure of that? I thought there were only 2 ships called HMS Enterprize, the first a 24 gun frigate captured from the French and renamed Enterprize (from the French L’Entreprise in 1705) and a 10 gun tender lost to the Americans in 1775 after a very brief life in the Royal Navy.
There was quite a fuss about the opening credits of StarTrek:Enterprise which showed a Galleon called HMS Enterprize, and a lot of people (not me, though, I’m too lazy about stuff outside my main interests) spent a lot of time trying to find out what this ship was; they all concluded that there had only ever been two ships called HMS Enterprize, the two mentioned above.
As neither a 24 gun frigate nor a 10 gun tender could carry enough guns to be a fifth rate warship (as far as I understand the rates the frigate could be 6th rate but not fifth), I suspect there was no 5th rate HMS Enterprize in 1708. Of course as the first HMS Enterpize was wrecked in 1707 and didn’t return to service and the second was built the best part of 70 years later, I suppose the gun count is a superfluous argument.