-ise / -ize

American English: -ize, -ization, -izing etc.
British English: either -ize or -ise

If you use -ise, write capsize
If you use -ize, write surprise, analyse and some other words (in AmE, one sometimes sees surprize, analyze, but this is not really accepted in BrE)

I always used to use the -ize, but some clients want -ise. Most clients believe that -ize is wrong in BrE – it isn’t – and I think the EU Interinstitutional style guide insists (for what it’s worth) on -ise.

As a general rule the first entry in the Concise Oxford dictionary should be followed. An exception to this rule is the spelling of words ending in -ise/-ize. Although both forms are correct, the preferred spelling is ‘-ise’ and this should be applied to ensure consistency.

This is silly, isn’t it?

Still, I find it worth keeping the Microsoft Word spellchecker free of -izes, so I can make sure I didn’t slip one in when the client wanted -ise.

The Oxford University Press is famous for using -ize, but it is not the only publisher to do so. Some translators not a million miles away from Oxford get very angry on this topic.

In this connection, the Plain Language Commission has a free newsletter, Pikestaff, with back copies available on its website, and in number 13 it has this to say:

Zee what we zed
Following our reminder in Pikestaff 12 about why we use ‘z’ rather than ‘s’ in words like ‘organization’, a reader emailed to ask whether its being the older English form is really a good reason to do this. Certainly, it’s natural that language evolves over time, and we don’t believe in sticking with tradition where there’s a more modern and clearer way.

In fact, the ‘z’ form is more widespread in British English than people may think, with data from the British National Corpus (BNC) showing a ratio of just 3:2 in favour of the ‘s’ spelling. It’s also the first form given in many British dictionaries for words deriving from the Greek and Latin suffixes, ‘-izein’ and ‘-izare’, and part of the house style of Oxford University Press. There are phonological and etymological arguments for using the ‘z’ form, ‘z’ representing better the sound of the suffix, and correlating better with the Greek and Latin forms of the suffix.

There are some words – like ‘surprise’ and ‘analyse’ – that can’t be spelt with a ‘z’; these derive from French rather than the classical languages. But in the US, some dictionaries now spell some such words with ‘z’ – so, ‘surprize’ and ‘analyze’. It’s rare in British English though, so if you want to follow our style, you need to remember the exceptions. ‘Capsize’ is the only word that can’t be spelt with an ‘s’.

If all this hasn’t made you feel like taking a zizz, you can read more about the topic in the corpus-based Cambridge Guide to English Usage (by Pam Peters), pages 298–9. There, the arguments in favour of the ‘z’ form lead Peters – like us – to conclude that ‘the systematic use of -ize spellings recommends itself on distributional and phonological grounds’. In our editing work, of course, we follow the customers’ house style.

(Thanks to Sue of the ITI)

10 thoughts on “-ise / -ize

  1. Sir Ernest Gowers explained it best:
    “Most English printers, taking their cue from Kent in King Lear, ‘Thou whoreson zed! Thou unnecessary letter!’, follow the French practice of changing -ize to ise.”
    (The statement is Fowler’s; the interpolated explanation is Gowers’, from the 2nd edition.)

    • Very funny. I hadn’t read that. Mind you, the last time I investigated it, Shakespeare had had less effect on the book publishing trade than on the learned newspaper editors. (How often does a printer make a decision?)

  2. As to whether to translate Anglo-amerikanisches Recht as Anglo-American law: depends on the referent I would say. If it’s intended to cover the whole of the common-law world then it clearly doesn’t work as far as the other countries are concerned.

    It can also lead to confusion since elements of what could reasonably be understood as “Anglo-American law” derive from a civil-law tradition. I have a post about the “Anglo-American” concept of usufruct for example.

    • This is a reference to courses held at German universities. I wonder if they have some run by Australians or New Zealanders, who include their law? Probably.

      There is a German Wikipedia entry on Anglo-Amerikanisch that defines Angloamerika as the USA and Canada. But it defines Anglo-amerikanisches Recht more broadly:

      Anglo-amerikanisches Recht, oder angels

    • I must find out how to create hyperlinks in comments. It worked in the old blog software, but not here, and when I change my settings I find comments are being blocked.

      Yes, I noticed that about the definition of common law, but I came to the conclusion that the term is used in German, and when it is, they only think of the one meaning, i.e. angloamerikanisches Recht as opposed to kontinental-europ

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