Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you


gambit vs gamut. The whole gamut of emotions or gambit of emotions? Run the gamut or gambit?

Here’s a whole gamut of emotions. Or do I mean gambit? Read on.


The other day a friend used the word gambit in a context where gamut would have been the “natural” thing to say. It goes without saying that I didn’t behave like a language fascist and point this out to them (note my cunning use of the so-called “singular they/them” to conceal gender): I merely noted a linguistic event for later investigation (Pull the other one! Ed.)

And sure enough, there is objective evidence that this isn’t a one-off—which set me wondering why. Before delving into my lucubrations, let’s look at what the two words in question mean.

What do they mean? And how are they used?

First, gambit. This originated (1656) as a chess term, originally denoting a game or series of moves that entailed making a sacrifice to gain an advantage, and then narrowing semantically to mean specifically an opening in which a player offers a sacrifice, typically of a pawn, for the sake of a compensating advantage.

However, unless you’re a chess buff, you’ll only encounter or use the word in the two other meanings that developed from those chess ones.

First historically and by frequency comes, as the OED defines it, “A remark intended to initiate or change the direction of a conversation or discussion”: e.g.

His favourite opening gambit is: ‘You are so beautiful, will you be my next wife?’.

Bernard made no response to Tom’s conversational gambits.

Typical adjectives that go with this meaning are opening and conversational.

Next, “A plan, stratagem, or ploy that is calculated to gain an advantage, esp. at the outset of a contest, negotiation, etc.”: e.g.

He sees the proposal as more of a diplomatic gambit than a serious defense proposal.

Campaign strategists are calling the plan a clever political gambit.

A more common or garden synonym for this meaning is tactic.

As in the examples, it needs adjectives to support it, such as diplomatic, bold, clever, desperate, daring, etc. Typical verbs of which it is the object are try and employ, and as subject, succeed/pay off/fail.

However, the most common verb in the corpus I consulted that “activates”1 gambit is run, of which more later.

Here’s another gamut of emotions. Mainly disagreeable, I agree.


As with gambit, and as with so very many words we use every day, gamut started life in a specific field of knowledge: music. Its more technical musical meanings needn’t concern us here, but one less technical meaning is “The full range of notes which a voice or instrument can produce, or which are used in a particular piece.” From this came its more generic modern meaning: “The whole gamut of something is the complete range of things of that kind, or a wide variety of things of that kind”: e.g.

Varied though the anthology may claim to be, it does not cover the whole gamut of Scottish poetry.

As the story unfolded throughout the past week, I experienced the gamut of emotions: shock, anger, sadness, disgust, confusion.2

The word is most often used in the syntax

the + (adjective) + gamut + of + noun(s),

and in particular in the noun group the whole gamut of.

Typical nouns are issues, topics, styles, activities, services and experience, but the most typical noun of all is emotions, as in the legendary, but somewhat apocryphal Dorothy Parker put-down of Katharine Hepburn’s acting ability: Miss Hepburn ran the whole gamut of emotions—from A to B.

Note the verb ran there, because run is far and away the most common verb “activating” gamut (followed in a lagging second place by cover.)

In what contexts are the words confused? And which way round?

Confusion of the two words is not that common, as discussed below; when it happens, gambit usually replaces gamut.

You may remember that when describing gambit I said run was its most common “activating” verb too, as in *The emotions run the gambit from joyous exultation to disgust, anger, and sadness, and each are [sic] performed so flawlessly as to take you, the viewer right into them as well.

The software underpinning the Oxford English Corpus, which I used here, makes it possible to compare the collocations of two different words (lemmas) using an analysis called “Sketch Diff”. (Bracketed figures below show the number of examples.) Using this for gambit and gamut shows that overlaps are restricted, as follows:

“activating” verb: run the gamut/gambit, (1746:50) cover the gamut/gambit (220:7)

noun + of: gamut/gambit of emotions (217:10)

adjective + noun: whole gamut/gambit (483:25)

As can be seen, the substitution of one for the other is a minority trend, unlike, e.g. replacing the etymologically correct minuscule with miniscule. Percentages of mistaken gambit out of all occurrences of the collocation in question range from 2.78 per cent (run…) to 4.92 per cent (whole…).

Another adjectival collocate of both words is usual (20:11). However, in only one of the eleven examples with gambit is it a slip: “*Emotions run the usual gambit of love and loss, but they’re sufficiently covered in metaphor and conceit, most often taking the guise of flowers and other elements of the natural world.”

Does it make any difference to understanding?

I humbly submit that it doesn’t. I’ve probably missed some, but here are some possible scenarios for people hearing/reading the confused use:

They know both words and their meanings will mentally (or verbally, if they want to lose friends) make the correction

They know only gambit, and know only its correct meaning, will interpret, query, or, possibly, attach a new (mistaken) meaning to the word

They  know only gambit, and have “gamut” as a meaning and will…well, nothing will happen, actually

People who know only gamut will mentally replace gambit with gamut

People who know neither word will work out the “meaning” of gambit from the surrounding context, and possibly perpetuate the error.

Why does the confusion occur?

Neither word is common. Gambit occurs less than once per million words. Gamut is more frequent, at almost 1.5 times per million. (But compare either with say, tactic(s), which occurs 26 times per million.) According to Collins, both fall within the 30,000 most common words of English, but that hardly makes them A-listers, given that a mere 7,000 words (lemmas) make up 90% of all texts.

Their relative infrequency means that there are not many opportunities available to sort sheep from goats, or one from the other.

In addition, I can’t help wondering whether phonetics or phonotactics plays a part: gambit contains the gamb– string that occurs in gamble, gambol and a total of 47 headwords in the OED. The string gamu– occurs only in—well,  you guessed it.

If you heard the word gamut and never saw it written, might you assimilate it to your known gambit?

Alternatively—and to be honest, as I get older I favour this interpretation more and more—it might be Dr Johnson’s “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.”

How old is this switching?

Some of the data in Google Ngrams is curious.3 For example, if you search for the string “gambit of emotions”, there seems to be a rash between 1968 and the mid-1990s, but then it disappears. Searching for “the whole gambit of” reveals an earliest example from 1937, including in Hansard and other parliamentary texts. However, Google Ngrams is a treacherous friend: it turns out that “the whole gambit” in Hansard means what it says, i.e. “the gambit in its entirety of…”.

An etymological note

Gambit is interesting in that it sems to be the bastard child of both Italian and Spanish.

On its first appearance in English it was gambett, showing a derivation from Italian gambetto, literally “little leg.” The OED etymology suggest this order of derivations:

gambito (Spanish, 1561) < gambetto (Italian, 14th century). Both -ito and -etto are diminutive suffixes in Spanish and Italian respectively, the ultimate source being Italian gamba = leg.

  1. In Mel’ˇcukian terms of lexical relations, Oper1
  2. Examples come from the excellent Collins Cobuild Dictionary, designed for ESL/EFL purposes, but actually extremely instructive IMHO for mother tongue speakers too.
  3. If you search for a string, Google will sometimes present examples that show the words occurring in the same context, but in isolation. This clearly skews results.



We need to talk about “around” or around “around” (2/2)

This is the face my gran pulls every time she hears “around” used instead of “about”. I’m worried her false teeth will fall out.

What’s this about?

As the title shows, it’s the continuation of the earlier blog on this topic:

  • The preposition around seems to be on the increase, often where, supposedly, about might have been used in the past.
  • Some people loathe it.
  • How recent is this use?
  • Does it really always replace about, or is it different?
  • How frequent is it?
  • What objective evidence is there?
  • If you were editing, how would you replace it?

For those in a hurry, here are the conclusions:

  • Around does seem to be on the increase in combination with certain kinds of noun.
  • It is not only a replacement for about: it can also replace or stand in for other phrases and prepositions (e.g. on, over).
  • It is not free, in the sense that it cannot fit into any slot where about works (e.g. you could not say “I know nothing around it”).
  • As far as I can tell, it is used chiefly in the syntagma NOUN (often plural) + around + NOUN (often plural or uncount, and including verbal nouns [“gerunds”, if you must]).
  • If one wished to edit it out, it is often clear immediately how to do so.

The earlier blog concluded with this paragraph:

“Google Ngrams also shows the kinds of noun issues around goes with. Many are the sort of easily parodied hot-button issues that cause sharp intakes of breath among the societally anxious, such as gender, sexuality, race, women, power, and sex.”

Now, please read on… [A ten-minute read — or one minute if you’re Oscar Wilde]

Some examples of the contested use

Using Google Ngrams to find nouns preceding around produces only the literal meaning, e.g. arms around (i.e. he put his arms around her).

However, the OEC (Oxford English Corpus) comes to the rescue – sort of. If you look for plural nouns followed by around, and exclude the obvious physical meanings (e.g. business leaders around the world) you get problems, ideas around and, heaven forbid, pace my correspondent, stories around. Here are some examples:

  1. “…Ruiz constructs a vertiginous cascade of stories around a same theme that bleed into each other with a baffling, hypnotic fluidity.” Senses of Cinema, 2002
  2. “…Hastings believes there has been insufficient debate about what he sees as the huge social problems around the marketing of fast food and snacks.” Sunday Business Post, 2003.
  3. Things Fall Apart involves a range of questions around the term “Third World.” The Hindu: Literary Review, 2002.
  4. “There were also a number of other problems around the workings of the gate including the width of the net clearance provided by the gate, …” England and Wales High Court Decisions, 2003.
  5. “Basically, gay artists have pushed sexual politics and ideas around sexual art quite far.” Montreal Mirror, 2002.

What becomes apparent from these examples is that, actually, in my opinion, in only the third and fifth of them could you realistically replace about with around. Try it yourself, to see what you think. In the other three, an adjectival phrase is needed, or a different preposition could have been used: in the first something like “stories on/dealing with/ concerned with, etc. a same theme”; in the second and fourth “with/connected with/arising from/caused by, etc…problems”.

So, what is going on?

As the first part of the OED definition suggests (“In reference or relation to; concerning, about”), around is not solely a modish or overused replacement for about in the meaning of “concerning”, though it often is just that. Take the phrase “ideas around sexual art” from the last quotation above. There are two entities – ideas and sexual art – and the speaker wishes to state that there is some kind of relationship between them, but the nature of this relationship is unspecified.

Possible explanations

  1. If you wanted to be leadenly literalistic, you could argue that this use of around foregrounds its physical meaning to create an image of something hovering around something else without actually touching it. That interpretation would then interpret the widespread use of issues around as a kind of liberal pussyfooting around sensitive issues. (The theory of reiconization, discussed at the end, seems to have great explanatory power, and could be taken to reinforce this interpretation.)
  2. Alternatively, one could suggest that the speaker is either being deliberately vague, or accidentally wooly.
  3. Alternatively yet again, one could simply say that the choice of around as the preposition following issues and related words is merely an increasingly prominent collocation – in the way that veritable is with smorgasbord  – while noting that it is not the only possible combination.

In fact, in the February 2014 OEC, issues around was less frequent than issues about (1744:2384) and the latter appears in examples such as the following where around could just as easily have been used:

“With or without these qualifications, the argument presented here raises general issues about the study of nineteenth-century expedition photography.” Art Bulletin, December 2003.

“Debates between the validity of medical and Neoplatonic interpretations of love thus clarify the extent to which what is seen as natural in love is a cultural construction involving wider philosophical issues about the body and gender.” Early Modern Literary Studies, May 2002.

Such collocational prominence for around seems to be self-perpetuating or self-reinforcing; the more people hear the collocation, the more people use it, and so on, ad infinitum. As evidence of this, the balance has changed dramatically in the space of three years: in the even larger May 2017 Monitor Corpus, issues around (excluding “around the world”) garners 7,496, issues about 4,606.

The process could be that the collocation is constantly expanding from issues as the head noun to other sets of words related semantically to core notions such as DISCUSSING, WORRYING, and REGULATING — and others still to be defined.

A search for PLURAL NOUNS + around + NOUN (of any kind) in the OEC threw up almost 115,000 examples. Most of them were in the physical sense; a small, random sample provided the collocations for our sense shown near the end of this blog.

Where did this use come from?

Because around in its “literal” physical meaning is more frequently used in AmE than BrE, it would be tempting to assume that this “new” use is ultimately American. I do not have enough information to say one way or the other; however, the earliest OED citation is from the British magazine Punch, from 1897. The next one noted by the OED is American, but then the 1970 one is, as far as I can tell, British. It is interesting that all include nouns relating to DISCUSSING rather than the word issues.

“Essence of Parliament… Useful, but not precisely alluring, debate around Employers’ Liability Bill.”
1897,  Punch 29 May 263/3

“The rather outstanding feature throughout the programs was the discussion around the larger problems of rural service.”
1938, Wisconsin Libr. Bull. July 133/1

“The..publication…has stimulated discussion around pre-capitalist economic formations of the non-European type.” 1970, M. A. Cook Stud. in Econ. Hist. Middle East (1978) 278 (note)

How frequent is it?

If someone has a linguistic bugbear such as the one I am blogging about, they are psychologically primed to notice it (and wince, scream, throw a hairy fit, etc.) whenever it happens. It then becomes a prominent feature of their perception of language, irrespective of how often it actually occurs in the stream of language they are exposed to.

Linguists call this the “frequency illusion”, meaning that once one notices a particular phenomenon one notices it over and over and over again and therefore believes it to be more frequent than it actually is (“frequency” here being objective, i.e. how often per million words of “text” [which covers spoken and written] does it occur?).

As mentioned earlier, Google Ngrams shows a fairly vertiginous rise in “issues around” in AmE and BrE. The use in British English takes off later than it does in AmE, which might provide some support for AmE spreading the use.

Other off-the-top-of-the-head collocations show an increase, like issues around, from the 1960s onwards:

discussion/rules/worries/anxiety/concerns/ around”.

On a purely anecdotal level, I’ve been noting its use in speech recently, particularly on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme I’ve put in brackets how I think it could be replaced if one (i.e. an editor) wanted to. The more I’ve looked into this, the more it strikes me that people use it in speech because there isn’t time to retrieve the more traditional/conventional/expected collocation — and because it is shorter — and because of reiconization.

challenges around – 22 June 2017 – British Chancellor of the Exchequer (posed by)
choices around – 23 June 2017 – a chief constable (recast the whole sentence?)
safety regimes around cladding – 26 June 2017 – I can’t remember who, sorry! (regulating, for)

And this was part of a statement by a CEO about a controversial issue:

“Instead, they were intended to outline a view that it is key for businesses in Scotland to have stability and clarity around ongoing important political issues.” (about, with regard to, when it comes to)

The most “arounded” conversation I have heard, however, comes from the leader of the Northern Ireland DUP party, Arlene Foster, from 26 May 2017, a part transcript of which is below.

Q: …
A: Well, I think this is an election about a couple of things. First of all, it’s about Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom – it’s also around getting the best deal for Northern Ireland in EU exit negotiations and making sure that we have a strong team to do that, and of course, it’s about the restoration of devolution as well.

Q: …
A: Oh, I think it can, and I think it can send a very clear message in relation to the Union. The Stormont elections were perilously close around a different set of circumstances…

In the first part, around looks like a way of not repeating about for the third time. In the second, however, it is distinctly unusual, given that there is a well-established prepositional collocation of under/in…circumstances. Moreover, it does not match the sytactic pattern mentioned earlier.

Other examples…

“I think after Will’s behaviour around women joining the team he should have been asked to leave already.” (over) (Twitter)

From OEC sample

“Though Zuckerberg has talked much about his opinions around borrowing ideas…” (about)

“…incomplete research into existing legal issues around encryption…” (affectingrelating to)

“The report recommended a raft of improvements around communication, stakeholder engagement, coaching, roles and responsibilities and leadership.” (to)

“The Government also agreed to lifting the restrictions around day-release for eligible prisoners…” (on)

“…directors emerged from a marathon board meeting on Thursday having resolved to implement new protocols around contracts after bungling negotiations…” (for, regulating, governing, etc.)

The wince factor

This is a purely and utterly subjective phenomenon – which is not to belittle its emotional intensity, but to state an obvious truth (or truism). [For example, I detest the pronunciation of “perfect” as /ˈpəːfɛkt/ rather than  /ˈpəːfɪkt/ because a) to my mind it reflects “spelling pronunciation”, and b) it is not the pronunciation I grew up  with. However, others might find this particular bugbear hard to understand or share.]

Words constantly change meaning and use. What is unusual, I believe, about around is that it is a preposition. Changes in the use of preposition are perhaps more noticeable because they are grammatical words, and grammatical words do not change that often or that quickly.

The eminent linguist Dwight Bolinger long ago devised the concept of “reiconization” to explain the increasing use of about to replace “of” in phrases such as “We’re more aware about it” rather than “aware of”.

I believe a similar process has happened/is happening with around: it sounds more graphic and literal than the now “empty” about.

Finally, we have no problem with the extension from the literal, spatial meaning of about to the less literal one of “concerning”. One could ask, why should around be any different?

Text of the abstract of the Bolinger article about reiconization (World Englishes, November, 1988).

“Reiconization refers to the process of reanalysis in which a meaningless or semantically opaque item is replaced by a new item with a transparent meaning. When the replaced (deiconized) item combines with other items to form a larger expression, the effect of reiconization is to maintain or restore the original meaning of the larger expression. This process is readily observable in the case of prepositions. For instance, the preposition of lacks a central meaning, and consequently, it is often replaced by the more iconic about or for, as in talk about rather than talk of. Similar examples can be found for other prepositions. Reiconization is not restricted to the replacement of prepositions, but operates at higher levels as well. The respecification of each in the reciprocal, each other, and the reanalysis evidenced by folk etymologies furnish examples of the operation of reiconization at different levels.”

One has to pay to read the article online. I shan’t attempt to summarize it, but will merely say that Bolinger gives several examples showing NOUN/ADJ/VERB + of collocations in which of is replaced by about: 

proud                                        |
I didn’t know what to make | about
disdainful                                 |
wary                                          |

He then goes on to say that while those phrases are reiconized by means of about, about itself is deiconized in the pair about vs around (in US English, at any rate.) Thus, to mess about is replaced by mess around, similarly,
stroll |
stand | about –> around 

That deiconization of about seems to go a long way towards explaining the rise and rise of around discussed in this blog.


We need to talk about “around” or around “around” (1/2)

“I can’t stand this misuse of ‘around'”, she shrieked, pressing the heels of her hands hard into her temples as if she were trying to give her brain some relief from its distress.

What’s this about?

  • The preposition around seems to be on the increase, often where, supposedly, about might have been used in the past;
  • Some people loathe it;
  • How recent is this use?
  • Does it really always replace about, or is it different?
  • How frequent is it?
  • What objective evidence is there?

In a review a couple of years ago of my revision of Fowler, I was taken to task for not having dealt with the phrase “issues around”.

Recently, a correspondent, clearly in some linguistic distress, wrote to me about around, “the” – in her words – “new all-purpose preposition”. Her email was headed drolly “around around”. I quote some of it (underlining added).

I wanted to write to share my pain at the creeping use of around and ask your opinion of how it could possibly have crept so far and so fast. While five years ago or so it was restricted to the speech of a certain type of person (politicians, civil servants etc), I’m now hearing it everywhere and even seeing it written down more and more, including in the headlines of supposedly serious newspapers.”

In case, gentle reader, you are unaware of the use of around being alluded to, it is where, previously, most people would have used about. My correspondent continues:

I find it hard to understand is how it has slipped so smoothly into people’s speech. To me, ‘a story about’ is a phrase I learnt when I was little and I’d find it hard to change to “a story around” without putting serious thought into changing my natural way of speaking (and I think about language a lot).”

Someone unkinder than me (I?) might jibe that perhaps the wrong kind of thinking is going on. I digress.

I find it so upsetting that the wide variety of prepositions we’ve used for years has been replaced by this jarring interloper that kicks me in the teeth every time I hear it.

I know I’m being slightly overdramatic but I find it all so frustrating. I am something of a pedantic linguist but I love new, genuine changes that I think enrich the language (the sort of slang heard on The Wire). I detest the glibness and impoverishing effect on language of around.”

In Michael Winner mode, I might be tempted to say “Calm down, dear!” (Drat, I’ve just unwittingly revealed the gender of my correspondent and simultaneously outed myself as a chauvinist pig. So be it.)

That email raises several issues. I will deal only with the language (briefly), the question of newness, the question of frequency, and what I shall call “the wince factor”.

When I started work on my revision of Fowler a few years back, I originally intended to include around with its continual and seemingly unstoppable quest for Lebensraum. I decided not to, for several reasons; however, were another revision to happen, I would feel obliged to put it in. And I would have to do so because my correspondent – and I know she is not alone – shows all the signs of emotional distress that afflict certain people – me included – when faced with a usage they intensely dislike. Not being a psychologist, I cannot comment on how such distress relates to other psychological phenomena. But the language is typical of the overwrought phrases that people use when decrying what they see as solecism: “share my pain”, “jarring interloper”, “kicks me in the teeth”. From this, and from my previous experience of this kind of complaint, it is clear that there is a specific subgenre of “language grousing” one of whose characteristics is physical pain metaphors of the most hyperbolic kind.

(As it happens, my email writer did not acknowledge my lengthy reply, which might suggest that the outburst was a way of letting off steam. That might explain the extreme language.)

As for how my correspondent distinguishes between “new, genuine” changes and those affected by “glibness” or “an impoverishing effect”, the answer must surely be “Because I say so”. It is stating the obvious to say that such distinctions are an entirely subjective matter: your “glib” or “impoverishing” word or phrase may be my metaphor of choice.

Anyway, let’s draw a line under that aspect and move on. (Now, there’s a couple of “glib” phrases.)

How recent is this use of around?

Arnold Zwicky identified a phenomenon he dubbed the “recency illusion”, namely “the belief that things you have noticed only recently are in fact recent”. My correspondent suggests that around to mean “about” has crept in and assumed a stranglehold over the last five years. It is undoubtedly older than that (and see also later on). In my mind, it is inextricably welded to the preceding noun issues, and I recall mentally noting this collocation issues around well over a decade ago, when it struck me as the jargon of the mealy-mouthed.

As regards the newness of this use of around = “about”, it is worth noting that the very recently revised OED entry (March 2016) includes a meaning category (B. II 11) defined as “In reference or relation to; concerning, about”, whereas the 2nd edition 1989 entry did not.  This shows that the OED lexicographers have decided it is a “thing.”

Now, I first noticed this issues around collocation as an irritating – to my sensibility, anyway – linguistic tic of academics, social workers, hacks and bien-pensant politicians. Google Ngrams shows its vertiginous ascent in that collocation quite clearly. (The texts in which it occurs are, Google confirms, indeed of the kind I have just mentioned.) What is noticeable, though, is that its irresistible rise and rise is not that recent. It is true that between 1980 and 2000 Google shows it rocketing up (its frequency in occurrences per million words goes up almost fourfold), but it had started its ascent well before that, roughly trebling between 1960 and 1980.

Google Ngrams also shows the kinds of noun issues around goes with. Many are the sort of easily parodied hot-button issues that cause sharp intakes of breath among the societally anxious, such as gender, sexuality, race, women, power, and sex.

tbc very soon…


“that” or “which”? Using “which” in restrictive or defining relative clauses (2/∞)


A young scholar struggling with the “which/that” distinction.

There are one or two loose ends to tie up from the previous blog on this topic, before I move on.

1.1 which or that in defining clauses: with indefinite pronouns

First, it may be helpful in distinguishing restrictive or defining relative clauses from non-restrictive/non-defining ones to note the following: they often associate with specific words or kinds of words such as something/nothing/anything/everything whose very meaning suggests that any relative clause following them has to be defining, since those words themselves are indefinite (actually, “indefinite pronouns”).

a) Elevating the usually ordinary exercise of changing level to such a dramatic experience is something that Libeskind [sc. the famous architect] relishes.
Architecture Week, 2004.

b) The public showing of something which is so private and particular is immediately startling.
Art Throb, 2004.

c) Punctuation serves a valuable purpose – it helps to convey meaning more precisely and anything which erodes the precision of the English language is to be deplored.
Telegraph, 2014.

d) For Samsung, anything that could help it look better in the eyes of U.S. Federal Court Judges is probably a good move, although in this case it may not help much.
The Mac Observer, 2014

While which can be used after these words, as illustrated, it is very much a minority trend: in the case of something that/which, for example, a little less than 10 per cent of all cases.

1.2 with determiners and predeterminers

Another class of words often associating with defining relative clauses is “determiners” and “predeterminers” such as some, any, many, most, several, other, all, both, each, every, little, few, etc., e.g:

e) Icelandic law prevents the importing of new strains to prevent disease: any horse which leaves Iceland can never return. Open Country. BBC, Radio 4.

f) But there are some things that all can understandGuardian Unlimited, 2004

g) There is no herbicide that controls all plants. UNL Neb Guides, 2002.

Most of these examples show that/which as the subject of its clause. Where it is the object, as in a) and f), it could just as easily have been left out altogether, as often happens in speech, e.g.,

f) But there are some things that all can understand.

Clauses of the type, …all can understand…, from which the relative pronoun is dropped, are what is known in grammar as  “contact clauses” and are very common in spoken language.

2 non-defining or non-restrictive clauses

As mentioned in the earlier blog, the information they contain can be omitted. Putting it another way, they are almost like an aside. That is why such clauses are conventionally and correctly enclosed in commas if they come in the middle of a sentence, or are preceded by a comma if they are the last clause in a sentence. Fowler (1926)  noted that a non-defining clause “gives a reason…or adds a new fact.”

The example given in the earlier blog was “I saw Kylie Minogue, who was staying at the hotel opposite.” Even if such clauses are omitted, the sentence will still make sense (though it will, obviously, convey less information): “I saw Kylie Minogue” makes perfect sense.

In that earlier blog, there were adjoining sentences, each with a non-defining clause: “They then wanted me to review the proofs, which the publisher had had proofread. Excellently proofread they were, too, complete with a useful, comprehensive list from the proofreader, which explained their decision on style issues such as the treatment of names and titles.”

Without those non-defining clauses, each sentence still works: “They then wanted me to review the proofs. Excellently proofread they were, too, complete with a useful, comprehensive list from the proofreader.” As Fowler, noted, the clauses add “a new fact”.

3 the rule – who enforces it?

To claim that “It is a rule that ‘that’ must be used to introduce a defining relative clause’” draws attention to the ambiguity, or at least polysemy, of the word “rule”. The Oxford Online Dictionary defines two relevant senses:

  1. One of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct or procedure within a particular area of activity.
    ‘the rules of cricket’
    1.1 A principle that operates within a particular sphere of knowledge, describing or prescribing what is possible or allowable. [my underlining]
    ‘the rules of grammar’

The “rule” that that has to be used clearly falls largely under definition 1 above.

It is a “regulation” or “principle” “governing conduct” within a particular “area”.

In this case, the “area” is written, edited English. However, the proponents of the rule would wish to assimilate it to definition 1.1.

Clearly “which” in a defining relative clause is both possible and allowable. But the usage absolutists would wish it weren’t, and certainly consider it undesirable. Their fatwa, however, is not like a genuine rule of grammar, such as “A clause in the English declarative mood has the subject followed by the verb.”

4 Who says you have to use “that”?

4. 1 Many people. For British English, the style guides of choice are The Guardian/Observer, The Telegraph, The Times and The Economist.
4.1.1 The Guardian endorses the distinction; as does the Telegraph Style Book, but with lamentable punctuation, in what looks suspiciously similar to The Economist’s perfectly punctuated dictum. The Telegraph has “which and that: which informs that defines. This is the house that Jack built, but: This house, which Jack built is now falling down.”

The Telegraph thus misses out the essential comma closing off the non-restricting clause.

4.1.2 The Economist correctly has: “which and that Which informs, that defines. This is the house that Jack built. But This house, which Jack built, is now falling down. Americans tend to be fussy about making a distinction between which and that. Good writers of British English are less fastidious. (“We have left undone those things which we ought to have done.”).”

(IMHO, for “fastidious” read “anal”.)

However, the Economist style guide occasionally (inevitably?) breaks its own rules, e.g. The Arabic alphabet has several consonants which have no exact equivalents in English (note that “determiner” several, as mentioned earlier).

4.2 For U.S. English,

4.2.1 Garner is dogmatical and absolutist on the matter:

“Legal writers who fail to distinguish restrictive from nonrestrictive clauses—and especially that from which—risk their credibility with careful readers. It’s therefore worthwhile to learn the difference so well that, when writing, you use the correct form automatically.”

Such cut-and-driedness is a reflection, presumably, of the need for absolute clarity and unambiguousness in legal writing.

4.2.2 Chicago is more nuanced: “Although which can be substituted for that in a restrictive clause (a common practice in British English), many writers preserve the distinction between restrictive that (with no commas) and nonrestrictive which (with commas). The APA (American Psychological Association) prefers writers to observe the distinction, and the AP style guide imposes it too.

Fowler and his crystal ball

In his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Henry Fowler included lengthy entries on that as relative pronoun and which((that)(who. In the entry for that, he distinguishes the two kinds of clause and assigns them what he considers their appropriate pronoun.

His learned, measured style is perhaps somewhat alien to modern sensibilities and is possibly easier to follow if read aloud:

“The two kinds of relative clause, to one of which that & to the other of which which is appropriate, are the defining & the non-defining; & if writers would agree to regard that as the defining relative pronoun, and which as the non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity & in ease. Some there are who follow this principle now ; but it would be idle to pretend it is the practice either of most or of the best writers.”

While Fowler expressed a velleity, it seems that the combined weight of usage guides, not to mention Word’s grammar checker (and no doubt others) is turning it into reality.

Fowler starts out the relevant section by taking usage writers down a peg or several: “What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize ; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes & dislikes.”


“that” or “which”? Using “which” in restrictive or defining relative clauses (1/∞)

Can you use which in defining (or restrictive) relative clauses?

For example…

“In 1957 work began, under the editorship of R. W. Burchfield, on the new supplement, superseding that of 1933, and treating all the vocabulary which came into use while the main dictionary was being published or after its completion.”
(From The Oxford Companion to English Literature [2000], referring to A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary)

In a nutshell, if you’re in the U.S., no (almost certainly); if you’re in the UK, yes, you can, as in the example shown, but many people think you can’t.

“Change nothing in your editing that you do not know to be essential or believe to be beautiful.”

I’ve got a bee in my bonnet. It’s buzzing around in a mad sort of OCD way, and I can’t swat the varmint, try as I might. The apian interloper in my titfer is this: I think changes should only be made to a piece of writing if they are either essential from a strictly grammatical (e.g. verb concord) or meaning point of view, or stylistically desirable. To adapt William Morris’s famous phrase, “Change nothing in your editing that you do not know to be essential or believe to be beautiful.”

I’ll pass over the stylistics here, but one facet of what I mean by “essential” is that truly ambiguous wordings or structures have to be changed. However, such cases are rare; the example with which at the start of this blog is not, to my mind, one of them.

I presume the mother, if American, will confiscate the present, and only give it back when the child replaces “which” with “that”.

Is this change necessary?

I do a lot of editing, and I also review other editors’ edits of articles for academic journals.

One of my oft-repeated comments directed at certain editors is “Is this change necessary?” On a similar tack, I recently copy-edited about half [don’t ask] of a book by a writer and journalist who has already had several books published and writes with flair and distinction. They [Isn’t it handy when “singular they” conceals gender!] then wanted me to review the proofs, which the publisher had had proofread.

Excellently proofread they were, too, complete with a useful, comprehensive list from the proofreader, which explained their decision on style issues such as the treatment of names and titles.

One of the notes, however, read “I have changed a few instances of ‘which’ to ‘that’ were perceived to be a relative clause.” This was a red rag to my bull.  I happened to notice one such change, as follows:

“That the phrase ‘native place’ is still used, however, shows that many Indians are migrants, albeit internal migrants. Such migration, ironically, has been greatly facilitated by the railways which were developed by the British,  a classic example of how they changed India for the good but still made the ‘natives’ feel inferior.”

That word which [my emboldening] had changed to that in the proofs. The book was being published by a British publisher: the change was, therefore, by my lights, totally unnecessary. What is more, it changed the words which/that had come naturally to the author and so, one could argue, changes their “voice”.

(From now on, I will use which/that to highlight restrictive or defining clauses.)

Back to basics: restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses

Let’s look at the example just mentioned. “Such migration, ironically, has been greatly facilitated by the railways which were developed by the British, …”

Now, which Indian railways are we talking about here? Why, only the ones the British developed before their departure in 1947. The specification is important, because, since then, the Indian government has massively expanded the rail network. So, what the clause “which were developed” is doing is to restrict the extension (in its logical meaning) of “railways”, or to define the kind of railways in question. That is why such clauses are called restrictive clauses or defining clauses.

Now let’s return to the example which/that heads this blog.

“In 1957 work began, under the editorship of R. W. Burchfield, on the new supplement, superseding that of 1933, and treating all the vocabulary which came into use while the main dictionary was being published or after its completion.”

“Vocabulary” here is being restricted to or defined as that which came into use during the long period it took for the original OED to be published (1884–1928), or thereafter. In other words, what is excluded by the defining clause is words that were already in the language before 1884.

How to identify restrictive or defining clauses

One way to identify defining or restrictive clauses which/that is often mentioned is to ask whether removing them changes the meaning of the sentence, or makes it nonsensical. Applying that test to our two example sentences gives:

“Such migration, ironically, has been greatly facilitated by the railways which were developed by the British, a classic example of how they changed India for the good but still made the ‘natives’ feel inferior.”

This is clearly a nonsense, since the subject of “they changed” now becomes the railways.

The other example still makes sense with the clause removed, but the meaning has changed drastically to include all the vocabulary of English.

“In 1957 work began, under the editorship of R. W. Burchfield, on the new supplement, superseding that of 1933, and treating all the vocabulary which came into use while the main dictionary was being published or after its completion.”

So, what are non-restrictive or non-defining clauses?

As the Collins Cobuild Grammar helpfully explains them, they “give further information which is not needed to identify the person, thing, or group you are talking about.”

(Note, incidentally, the use of which in the above restrictive/defining relative clause. The Grammar was produced at Birmingham University, and whoever wrote that section will have been a British English speaker. The use of which was natural to them.)

The Grammar then continues: “If you say ‘I saw Kylie Minogue’, it is clear who you mean. But you might want to add more information … , for example, ‘I saw Kylie Minogue, who was staying at the hotel opposite’. In this sentence, ‘who was staying at the hotel opposite’ is a non-defining relative clause.” Note that the comma here is obligatory to separate such a clause from what precedes.

If you’ve ploughed/plowed through this, you might need cheering up, so I throw in this picture of KM gratis, free and for nothing.

The gold hotpants which/that caused quite a stir when Kylie first exhibited herself in them.



-ise or -ize? (3/3) In praise of monetize, diarize, etc.

-ize verbs are ‘like lavatory fittings, useful in their proper place but not to be multiplied beyond what is necessary for practical purposes.’


Some people have an almost pathological aversion to certain words ending in -ize and would do all they could to expel them from the body of English.

(NB: ‘-ize‘ here stands also for the spelling –ise)

Why? Sometimes it seems almost like a blood feud: just as venomous and visceral, and just as unreasonable.

Here’s an example:

Monetize: a word we didn’t need

Only in the perverted world of the web can something as simple and fundamental as making money be in need of a fancy word like “monetize”

from the blog Signal v. Noise.

Here’s a question from the Grammarphobia blog.

Q: A curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was quoted as saying that “risk has been incentivized.” Yuck! Any comments?

A: Someone in the arts has no business using that kind of bureaucratese. Leave it to the CEOs and politicians.

And here’s Brian Garner on disincentivize: “Disincentivize is JARGON for discourage or deter” and he gives the example (from the San Francisco Daily): “We’re competing with Los Angeles and New York firms for talent,” Bochner said. “We don’t want to disincentivize people from coming here because there are huge gaps in salary.”’

Any discussion of words such as the above, it seems to me, has to attempt to answer at least the following questions:

  1. what do they really mean?
  2. are they necessary or useful?
  3. are they overused?
  4. when are they appropriate?
  5. who dislikes them, and why?
  6. when did the dislike start?

A history of contempt

Verbs in -ize have existed in English for a very long time, e.g. baptize since 1297, organize since 1425, generalize also 1425, etc., etc.

The OED lists no fewer than 2,315 of them. Some are nonce words (to wondernize – ‘to make a wonder of’, 1599; to miraculize – ‘to transform [a person] with miracles’, 1751); many were—some might say ‘thankfully’—short-lived (to abastardize, ‘to declare [someone] illegitimate’], 1574—1692|; to accowardize, ‘to render [someone] cowardly’, 1480—1642).

But many are indispensable in everyday language, and seem to ruffle no feathers, e.g. authorize (first recorded in the 14th century), civilize (17th), memorize (16th), sterilize (17th), terrorize (19th), and, more topically, computerize (1960).

One prolific coiner of –izes was the Elizabethan maverick writer Thomas Nashe, whom the OED credits with 28, including overprize, which has survived (by the skin of its teeth), and unmortalize (= ‘to kill’), which has not.

The OED entry for the -ize suffix suggests that he was criticized, nay, anathematized, and martyrized for its overuse:

Reprehenders, that complain of my boystrous compound wordes, and ending my Italionate coyned verbes all in ize.

What happened between then and the nineteenth century I don’t know, but usage gurus in the 1800s repeatedly condemned them, as  Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage explains.

Not even Noah Webster himself was immune to izeophobia. While deigning to enter the word jeopardize, he nevertheless noted: ‘This is a modern word, used by respectable writers in America, but synonymous with jeopard and therefore useless’.

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A generalized dislike? ‘Crude, overused, or unnecessary’.

In his 1996 edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Robert Burchfield referred to ‘The widespread current belief that new formations of this kind are crude, overused, or unnecessary’. (He substantiated this by referring to a single comment in Gowers’ Plain English, so perhaps ‘widespread’ should be interpreted as ‘prevalent among the small group of Oxonians, usage pundits and others who care deeply about such things’.)

However, his adjectives reflect some of the issues about these words that I touched on at the beginning.

Are they necessary? To my mind, their very existence confirms their necessariness. Speakers do not generally create phantoms. Moreover, several such words have highly specific technical or scientific meanings. How many people object to being anaesthetized before an operation? (Though of course, the pedantic could insist on being ‘given an anaesthetic’.)

Are they overused? I don’t even know how one would begin to answer this question. If ‘overused’ means ‘there are too many of them’, how many would be not too many? How many would be too few?

Perhaps it means individual verbs are used too often. In which case, there must be a notional cap on any given word. If so, who decides what it is? (‘OK, Mr Carney, you’ve used “undercapitalized” three times today. That’s your lot, mate. You’ll have to find another word, or put a tenner in the -ize box.’)

The question doesn’t make any kind of sense.

Another criticism sometimes levelled at –ize verbs is that they are ugly (e.g. by Gowers), or inelegant. But aesthetic criteria in language are subjective. Your ugliness can be my practicality.

One might be on firmer–though still rather subjective–ground in suggesting that some of them sit best in certain kinds of discourse.

For instance, Garner might have a point that ‘disincentivize’ is jargon and needlessly ousts simpler words such as deter or discourage. Then again, he might be wrong; it all depends on context. In the specific example he quotes, the subject matter is, after all, financial, and you could argue that disincentivize is actually more accurate and focused than the synonyms he suggests: it packages a more complex idea, which means that the sentence could be paraphrased as ‘we don’t want to remove whatever possible incentives we can provide for talent’.

Like many original technicisms (e.g. neurotic, semantic, mesmerize), such words escape the confines of their original domain. That they do so does not make them unnecessary or suspect.

I would, in fact, argue that many -ize verbs are a very convenient way of packaging in one word meanings and connotations that would otherwise take several.

They are beautifully (or uglily, for many) economical.


What do they mean?

One can only take them individually.


Going back to ‘monetize’, many of the 44 comments on the website mentioned at the beginning quibble over what it ‘really’ means1.

Some argue that it is just a pompous way of saying ‘make money out of ’. If so, any flab it adds in pomposity it quickly works off through brevity.

Economy of effort should never be underestimated in language, as a couple of other commenters (?) are quick to grasp. One says: ‘“How can we monetize this?” actually means “How can we make this make money?” and is thus more efficient and avoids the double use of “make”’. Another quips ‘Monetize is a word that has a specific meaning when used in context. It is [a] useful word for making conversations shorter, therefore making meetings shorter.’

But I don’t think it usually means merely ‘make money out of’. As one of the commenters says, ‘the term monetize is more referring to “how can we take this thing we already have (traffic, users, etc.) and convert it into money.”’

That echoes the relevant OED definition and examples: To exploit (a product, service, audience, etc.) so that it generates revenue.

1998   Boston Globe 14 Jan. c6/6   It’s all about eyeballs, audience acquisition… Growth lies in the ability to monetize those eyeballs.

Moreover, that meaning is the fourth and last of a word that first saw the light of day in 1867.

(And if anyone can think of a way of monetizing this blog, do, please, let me know.)



Which leads seemlessly (only joking, but it’s a common enough eggcorn) to another word that is, in my view, both economical and versatile. In 1982, Burchfield described prioritize as

‘a word that at present sits uneasily in the language’. While some people still consider it an uninvited guest, it seems to have made itself at home and got its feet well under the table.

Consider its usefulness. With a single word you can express the meaning ‘Designate or treat (something) as being very or most important’ (e.g. the department has failed to prioritize safety within the oil industry)


‘Determine the order for dealing with (a series of items or tasks) according to their relative importance’ (e.g. ‘age affects the way people prioritize their goals’)


(intransitively) To establish priorities for a set of tasks. (e.g. A hot file forces you to prioritize because you have to select which things will be included.)

Its other benefits include nominalization as prioritization, and derivatives, reprioritize and deprioritize.




Finally, in this paean to -ize verbs, take a word which, as it happens, is more common in British than in American English, despite probably sounding to many Brits like an Americanism; and, far from being new, was first used—albeit in a different meaning—in 1827: diarize/diarise.

It expresses ‘to put in one’s diary’ in a single word. How convenient is that?

Lavatory fittings?


In his The Complete Plain Words (1954), Sir Ernest Gowers, drawing on the well-established ‘unwanted alien’ trope for language, wrote:

‘The main body of the invasion consists of verbs ending in ise.

‘“There seems to be a notion”, says Sir Alan Herbert, “that any British or American subject is entitled to take any noun or adjective, add ise to it, and say, “I have made a new verb. What a good boy am I.”

‘Among those now nosing their way into the language are casualise (employ casual labour), civilianise (replace military staff by civil), diarise (enter in a diary), editorialise (make editorial comments on), finalise (put into final form), hospitalise (send to hospital), publicise (give publicity to), servicise (replace civilians by service-men), cubiclise (equip with cubicles), randomise (shuffle).’

As happens with such verbs, three have disappeared together with their referent (civilianise, servicise, cubiclise), but the others have forcefully demonstrated their usefulness.

Gowers then uses the aesthetic argument:

‘This may be symptomatic of a revolt against the ugliness of ise and still more of isation, which Sir Alan Herbert has compared to lavatory fittings2, useful in their proper place but not to be multiplied beyond what is necessary for practical purposes.’

(He also quipped: ‘If nobody said anything unless he knew what he was talking about, a ghastly hush would descend upon the earth.’)

As long ago as 1996, Burchfield proved that

‘Any feeling that the language is being swamped by new formations in -ization and -ize does not appear to be supported by the facts.’

(As an example, of the 5,219 post-1970 words in the OED, a mere 40 are -ize verbs. )

1 A wag among the commenters writes: ‘The first time I saw that word, I thought “Monet-ize”? You mean, scrunch up your eyes to make everything blurry, like the plein-air painters do? When I learned what the word was intended to mean, I realized my initial thought was correct – it is linguistic bullshit designed to obfuscate the fact that you are trying to figure out how to make money from something that should just be free.’

2 I have to confess, since coming across this phrase, I’ve never understood exactly what Sir Alan meant. Bidets? Toilet paper holders? Bog brush?


-ise or -ize? Is -ize American? (2/3) Damn your -ize, Morse!


  • 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 that the -ise spelling, though rather rare, is also used on the far side (from me) 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.

Some figures

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.

US Can Brit
organized 9,375 4,821 3,260
organize 5,652 2,529 1,854
organizing 4,138 1,795 1,178
organizes 529 271 209
TOTAL -IZE 19,694 9,416 6,501
organised 575 279 8,978
organise 376 163 5,352
organising 243 130 4,042
organises 35 17 522
TOTAL -ISE 1,229 589 18,894

all forms -ize/ise

94.1%5.9% 94.3%/5.7% 25.6%/75.4%

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)
civilise, -ising

Brit = 76 (35/41) US = 10 (8/2)

Percentage all forms -ize/ise:

US:         92.65%/7.35%
Brit:       41.09%/58.91%

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 15thcentury; 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 word 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.

Surprize, surprize!

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 our 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).

Perugino paints a flash-mob Baptism.

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 / globalization
 / localization

It also applies to verbs which have a y before the s or z, such as analysecatalyse 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…

[1] 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

[2] OED note

“…; in modern French the suffix has become -iser, alike in words from Greek, as baptiserévangéliserorganiser, and those formed after them from Latin, as civilisercicatriserhumaniser. 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 note: “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.”

[3] 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.