Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you


-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.


-ise or -ize? Is -ize American? (1/3)



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.


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:




circumcise disguise expertise revise


comprise emprise franchise supervise


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




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.


dryly or drily, slyly or slily? A spelling conundrum

A oung boy and girl smile shyly in their village, Kawaza, in Zambia, Africa.

A young Zambian girl and boy smiling shyly.

What’s the issue?

The other day I was writing this sentence: “The exotically handsome man in the corner lowered his Arabic newspaper and smiled shyly at her.”

I had to pause to think about the spelling of “shyly”. Was that right, or should it be “shily”?

But the second one looked very, very odd to me. A quick check in the Oxford online dictionary (British & World English) confirmed that the -yly spelling was indeed correct.

How many words are affected?

That set me thinking, though, about which other adverbs were affected. The obvious one – well, perhaps not that obvious, because none of these words are/is particularly frequent – was dryly/drily, and the only other one I could think of off the top of my head was slyly/(slily?).

The OED has since come to my aid by adding wryly to those. It also lists two opposites (unshyly and unslyly) as well as some curiosities. (I’ve put a couple at the end. As so often happens, the OED citations suggest some delightful [to me, at any rate] historical asides.)

OK, aren’t I fussing about superminutiae, you might ask. Yes and no. There is a generalizable spelling rule that piqued my curiosity, and, apart from anything else, I wanted to refresh my understanding of it.


What’s the spelling rule?

That spelling rule, as formulated in the Oxford A-Z of Spelling, is:

“When adding suffixes to words that end with a consonant plus -y, change the final y to i (unless the suffix already begins with an i).”

Using its examples, that gives us pretty -> prettier -> prettiest
ready -> readily
beauty -> beautiful

The rules also apply to the inflectional verb morphemes -s, -ed, -ing added to verbs ending in -y, thus giving us, on the one hand, defy -> defies, defied, deny -> denies, denied, and on the other defying, denying.

Them be the rules. But there is a certain fuzziness affecting a few words apart from the adverbs already mentioned: dryer vs drier and flyer vs flier come to mind. And American and British usage seem to be different, as dictionaries illustrate below. So, it constitutes yet another of those trillions of subtle differences between American and British English that can flummox the unwary.

So, why are shyly, slyly, etc. exceptions to the rule?

The final letter -y of many adjectives – pretty, crazy, noisy, etc. – represents a ‘short’ unstressed i sound, i.e. /ˈprɪti/. When the adverb suffix is added, it changes slightly to /ˈprɪtɪli/ but it’s still an i sound. But the -y in shy, sly, etc. represents a different /ʌɪ/ sound, e.g. /ʃʌɪ/. The more common pattern for adverbs is the first (around 500 examples in the OED), which presumably sets up the expectation that the spelling -ily is to be pronounced /-ɪli/. And that just jars with what we know about the pronunciation of dry, etc.  as an adjective by suggesting  the anomalous /drɪli/.

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Lost and Confused Signpost

What do dictionaries say?

Oxford online (UK): drily (also dryly); shyly; slyly; wryly
Oxford online (US): dryly (also drily); as above
Collins online (UK): drily or dryly; shyly; slyly, slily; wryly
Collins online (US): dryly; shyly; slyly; wryly
Merriam-Webster online: drily or dryly; shyly; slyly also slily; wryly
OED unupdated entries give: dryly | drily and slyly | slily as alternative headwords; shyly (also shily); wryly (also 15-16 [i.e. 1500s, 1600s] wrily)
The Oxford Canadian dictionary gives dryly (also drily), whereas its Australian companion gives drily (also dryly).

(NB: there are also differences in what dictionaries show for comparatives and superlatives of adjectives, e.g. shyer/shier, shyest/shiest, but I’m trying to keep this short(ish), though I inevitably end up being prolix.)

Historically, it looks as if writers have for a long time wavered between the two spellings. For example, the 14 OED citations for dryly/drily divide into dryly (5), drily (7), driely (1), dryely (1).

Corpus to the rescue

Oxford English Corpus (OEC) data (March 2013), which covers ten varieties of English, produces 1980 citations for dryly, against a mere 416 for drily. In most varieties where the figures can be taken as meaningful, there is a clear preference for dryly, most markedly in US English, closely followed by Canadian. Only British and New Zealand English show an almost 50/50 split.

(Complete table at the end; apologies for the format: I can’t do WordPress charts.)

The Corpus of Global Web-based English does not show such an extreme split: dryly (437)/drily (231), but confirms most of the trends shown in the OEC, except: in NZ dryly predominates, and Irish usage is roughly 50/50.

There doesn’t seem to be too much online discussion of this minutia (yes, it does exist). In a posting on dryly/drily, a British speaker states that she prefers drily, while the original poster (sounds odd, but is correct) was puzzled by seeing drily in US publications. And an American professor was perplexed about how to explain this glitch in the rules to his class.

I suspect the spelling of this very small group of adverbs causes not a few people to scratch their head quite ferociously.

Man dryly scratching bonce.

Man dryly scratching bonce.

Some OED treasures

I searched for *yly, which returned also vowel + yly. All of these headwords are marked in the OED with the obelisk (dagger) symbol, to show that they are obsolete: †

astrayly (i.e. from astray), has only one citation, from the 1440 Promptorium Parvulorum (“storehouse for children”) a bibliographical landmark as the first bilingual English-Latin dictionary. It translates astrayly as palabunde, the adverb from the post-classical Latin pālābundus, “wandering about, struggling”.

Sundayly  (i.e. every Sunday). From The Medieval records of a London City Church (1905) p. 110:   Item payd sondayly to iij [3] poore almysmen to pray for the sowle of Iohn Bedham yerely.

It’s a touching image of medieval devotion to think of those three men being paid – or given something in kind? – to pray for John Bedham’s soul – but only once a year?

enemyly: from the Wycliffite bible (c1384)  Macc. xiv. 11   Other frendis hauynge hem enmyly, enflawmiden Demetrie aȝeinus Judee.

Last, and certainly not least, from the 1496 epitaph of Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke and Duke of Bedford (Beddeford), buttly, which the OED defines as “beautifully (?)” : He that of late regnyd in glory With grete glosse buttylly glased Nowe lowe vnder fote doth he ly.


There are 31 citations from this work in the OED. Jasper Tudor was Owen Tudor’s son, Henry VI’s half-brother, and Henry Tudor’s uncle, and a powerful figure during the Wars of the Roses, instrumental in the victory of his nephew, who thus became Henry VII.

Totals for citations do not match overall figures given earlier, since low numbers of occurrences have been excluded.

Variety of English dryly drily Total citations
Number As % of total for that variety Number As % of total for that variety
US 887 91% 88 9% 975
Br. 259 54% 222 46% 481
Can. 54 89% 7 11% 61
Austr. 49 87.5% 7 12.5% 56
Irish 21 78% 6 22% 27
NZ 15 45% 18 55% 33
Unknown 677  92% 62  8% 739


‘To have another think coming’ or ‘another thing coming’?

The other day, the chirruping bird alerted me to an issue that I hadn’t previously given much thought to. Is it to have (got) another think coming or another thing?

A tweet for English learners referred to the idiom as ‘another thing coming’, and pointed people to a Judas Priest song titled You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’, the second verse of which goes like this:

If you think I’ll sit around as the world goes by
You’re thinkin’ like a fool cause it’s a case of do or die
Out there is a fortune waiting to be had
If you think I’ll let you go you’re mad
You’ve got another thing comin’
You’ve got another thing comin’

Conversely, a British English speaker, sought to correct a tweet by a British politician that contained the wording ‘another thing coming’.

Metalheads will already know the song. If you don’t, and you want your ear wax blown out, or wish to indulge in some private moshing or headbanging, you can listen to the original version here:

If you prefer a more mellow approach, here’s the link to veteran smoothie Pat Boone’s version — which kinda proves that heavy metal is non-transferable.

The ‘thing’ spelling is repeated, for example, in:

“If they think I’m going to be a Labrador and roll over they’ve got another thing coming,” he says of the [Conservative] party.

Daily Telegraph (British), 2013.

But the ‘think’ spelling is used here:

In the first instance it sounds good, but if people think those big international companies are here for the benefit of New Zealand, they really have another think coming.

New Zealand Parliamentary debates, 2005.

Since both quotations transcribe what people said, it is impossible to know what form of the phrase the original speakers had in mind.

Stewie says 'another thing', and he's a bit of a stickler.

Stewie says ‘another thing’, and he’s a bit of a stickler.

Quick facts

  1. Speakers use both another thing coming and another think coming. and both are part of World English, although only a few varieties of English use either phrase frequently.
  2. Which version you use may depend partly on which variety of English you speak, and which variant you have been most exposed to—and, possibly, on how much of a  ‘prescriptivist’ you are.
  3. Whichever version you use, someone somewhere may consider it wrong, but British speakers are probably more likely to consider another thing coming wrong.
  4. The Oxford English Corpus (OEC) and the Global Web-Based English Corpus (GloWbE) both show another thing coming to be more frequent in data for all varieties of English taken as a whole.
  5. In US English, data suggests a marked preference for another thing. In British English, the two forms compete more evenly.
  6. Other data on frequency is slightly contradictory (see further details at end of blog).

All the above suggests to me that, if you’re editing someone else’s work and feel tempted to change this phrase, you might want to have a bit of a think about it.

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) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I shall be blogging regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!

Where is the phrase from?

In its original form, according to the OED, it was to have another think coming, and it is American in origin:

Conroy lives in Troy and thinks he is a corning fighter. This gentleman has another think coming.

Syracuse (N.Y.) Standard, 21 May, 1898.

But note that Language Log has a citation from a year earlier, from the Washington Post of April 29, 1897, in the title of an article, and in inverted commas.

It’s worth mentioning that think as a noun is merely a nineteenth-century ‘invention’ (1838), despite the antiquity of the verb (Old English). From discussion in the blogosphere, it seems that some people find it rather odd for think to be used as a noun, which would reinforce their use of thing. (It turns out from figures given below that this noun use of think is indeed rare in US and Canadian English.)

The OED’s first example of another thing coming is from only a few years later, from a book published in New York in 1906:

Now if we should try and think up some one person who is satisfied with the existing order of things.., we would most likely have thought that we should find him in the editor of the Wall Street Journal. But if we did, then we have another thing [1904 Wilshire’s Mag. think] coming.

Wilshire Editorials, G. Wilshire.

(Notice how the OED shows the 1904 rendition of the phrase with ‘think’.)

Is anyone bovvered?

Online searches suggest that, rather than caring deeply about which version is correct, many people are simply puzzled when they come across whichever of the two alternatives is not part of their idiolect.

For example, in my idiolect think is correct, and makes sense meaningwise: it means ‘to think again, to change one’s mind, to have second thoughts’, and that meaning is primed for me by the fact that the phrase often follows a clause introduced by ‘if you/he/she, etc. think(s), e.g., And if you think I ‘m letting you get your hands on my crystals you’ve got another think coming.

Moreover, there are analogous uses of think as a noun—to have a think about something, after a bit of a think, and so on.

However, this noun use of think seems to be rather more common in British and Australian English than in American English, according to the OEC data. GloWbE confirms this: of its 440 examples, 370 are from British/Australian/New Zealand/Irish English, and only 30 from US/Canadian.

Similarly, another thing coming makes perfect sense to the people who use it. In that form, the phrase can be interpreted along the lines of ‘something different from what you expect is going to happen to you’. This makes sense too, since both versions of the phrase are a sort of warning, if not a veiled threat.

And while sentences containing another thing coming also often start with ‘if you/he/she, etc. think(s), that doesn’t appear to deter people from using the thing spelling.


Here is an interpretation from a site on which users raise questions about English usage (

I also grew up with another thing and I still don’t believe think is original. My thoughts are along the following lines. Ehhmm, Ready?? Lots of people, when laying out the list of arguments for their cause will follow that list with, “… And another thing… ” and go on to list more arguments. This was the origin of the phrase in my mind. Think, I reasoned, was then just someone’s clever pun.

And from comments on a Guardian blog on this topic, it is clear that many people are absolutely adamant about which version is ‘correct’. (There is the usual split in comments between the ‘English is going to the dogs’ and the ‘variation is a fact of language’ brigades.)

Why the alternation?

In simple terms, because the sound at the end of think and the beginning of coming is broadly similar, i.e. /θɪŋk/ and /k-/, it is hardly surprising that word boundaries have been re-analysed as sort of /θɪŋ/ /k-/, which produces another thing coming.

Such re-drawings of word boundaries have historically given English words such as adder, apron, nickname, and umpire.

In practice, the phonetic picture is rather more complex, and it can be difficult in rapid speech to tell if a speaker is saying ‘think’ or ‘thing’. A detailed phonetic notation, kindly provided by Professor Jane Setter, of Reading University, is here: think_thing. With think the phenomenon of ‘pre-fortis clipping‘ takes place, affecting the value of the i sound.

(For an exhaustive and illuminating phonetic description of what exactly is going on when someone says the phrase, complete with audio clips, see this Language Log blog.)

What do dictionaries and style guides say?

Neither the Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage nor The Cambridge Guide to English Usage covers it. Burchfield included it in his 1996 edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and I have modified it in my edition. The OED describes to have another thing coming as ‘arising from misapprehension’ of “another think coming”’, but the Oxford Dictionary Online (which is not the OED, but a shorter, more modern dictionary) has no note, and does not include to have another thing coming; nor do Merriam-Webster online, the Collins online dictionary, and the Macmillan dictionary.

Facts & figures

Perhaps dictionaries should look at the issue again; no doubt in time they will.


A simple Google for ‘another thing/think coming’ shows them practically neck and neck. However, if you exclude ‘Judas Tree’ from each search, the balance shifts towards ‘another think coming’: (roughly 170 million vs 71 million.) I’m dubious, however, about how useful such a simple search is.

(February 2014 release; 2.14 billion words)

‘another thing’ = 124
US = 56 (45%)
Brit. = 28 (22%)
unknown = 15 (12.1%)
Can. = 7 (5.6%)
Oz = 6 (4.8%)
Remainder (India, Ireland, etc.) = 12

‘another think’ = 94
Brit. = 35 (37%)
US = 29 (30%)
unknown = 11 (11.7%)
NZ = 9 (9.6%)
Oz = 2 (2.1%)
Can. = 1 (1.1%)
Remainder (South Africa, India, etc.) = 10

As regards British English vs US English, in the OEC both variants are used in both varieties, but for American English the ratio of think:thing is 29:56, while for British English it is 35:28.

(1.9 billion words)

‘another thing’ = 119
US = 33 (27.7%%)
Brit. = 32 (26.9%%)
Irish = 12 (10.1%)
Oz = 8 (6.7%%)
Philippines = 5 (4.2%)
Remainder (15 countries) = 29

‘another think’ = 66
Brit. = 26 (39.4%)
US = 18 (27.3%)
Nigeria = 4 (6.1%)
Philippines = 3 (4.5%)
Irish = 2 (3%)
Oz = 1 (1.5%)
Remainder (14 countries) = 12

Corpus of Contemporary American
(450 million words; 1990–2012

another thing:another think 20:23

Google Ngrams
Data here suggests that the exact string ‘got another think coming’ is still more frequent, but that ‘got another thing coming’ has been increasing since the 1960s, while ‘think’ has been declining since the 1980s. The picture is similar for English data as a whole, and for US and British English data individually.


‘Lavatory fittings’. Should we flush -ize/-ise verbs down the toilet?


Many editors and other assorted word buffs have a pathological aversion to some words ending in -ize (or -ise, it doesn’ t matter which, I’ll use –ize below to stand for them both), and would do all they could to expel them from the body of English.

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

A history of contempt

NPG D25501; Thomas Nash after Unknown artist Since the 19th century usage gurus have repeatedly condemned them; and it seems that even in Elizabethan times Thomas Nashe’s use of the suffix to coin new words upset some of his contemporaries.

Lavatory fittings

The novelist, MP, and campaigner for plain language Sir Alan Herbert compared verbs ending in -ize to lavatory fittings, 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.)

Perhaps people’s antipathy to such words is simply a question of their novelty, either real or perceived.

In the 19th century jeopardize was a favourite target (of Noah Webster, of dictionary fame, among others).  In the earlier 20th century finalize came in for a lot of flack.

Who now raises an eyebrow about either?

In 1982 the eminent lexicographer Robert 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.

And who bats an eyelid (the idioms are galloping away with me today) about authorize (first recorded in the 14th century), civilize (17th), memorize (16th), sterilize (17th), terrorize (19th), and, more topically, computerize (1960).

A public convenience

DiaryOne criticism of –ize verbs is that they are ugly, or inelegant. But aesthetic criteria in language are subjective. Your ugliness can be my practicality.

I would argue that most -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.

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?

Let’s incentivize our offering

Another current bête noire is incentivize. It is one of the more than 100 -ize verbs the Oxford English Dictionary lists as having been coined after 1950.

Again, it is conveniently economical. Compare its single-wordness with the OED definition.
To motivate or encourage (a person, esp. an employee or customer) by providing a (usually financial) incentive; also with to and infinitive. Also: to make (a product, scheme, etc.) attractive by offering an incentive for purchase or participation.”

As long ago as 1996, Burchfield wisely observed:
One must be careful not to give the thumbs down to words simply because one has not encountered them before. … Any feeling that the language is being swamped by new formations in –ization and –ize does not appear to be supported by the facts.

I agree wholeheartedly.