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The endings ‘-ise’ and ‘-ize’

Q From Sid Murphy: In words including the ending -ize or -ise, such as organize and categorize, does British English spell them with an s or a z? I would also appreciate a comment on derivation.

A The broad rule is that the -ize forms are standard in the US, but that -ise ones are now usual in Britain and the Commonwealth in all but formal writing. For example, all British newspapers use the -ise forms; so do most magazines and most non-academic books published in the UK. However, some British publishers insist on the -ize forms (Oxford University Press especially), as do many academic journals and a few other publications (the SF magazine Interzone comes to mind). Most British dictionaries quote both forms, but — despite common usage — put the -ize form first.

The original form, taken from Greek via Latin, is -ize. That’s the justification for continuing to spell words that way (it helps that we say the ending with a z sound). American English standardised on the -ize ending when it was universal. However, French verbs from the same Latin and Greek sources all settled on the s form and this has been a powerful influence on British English. The change by publishers in the UK has happened comparatively recently, only beginning about a century ago (much too recently to influence American spelling), though you can find occasional examples of the -ise form in texts going back to the seventeenth century.

I like the -ise forms myself, in part because being British I was brought up to spell them that way, but also because then I don’t have to remember the exceptions. There are some verbs that must be spelled with -ise because the ending is a compound one, part of a larger word, and isn’t an example of the suffix. An example is compromise, where the ending is -mise, from Latin missum, something sent or placed. Some other examples spelled -ise are verbs formed from nouns that have the s in the stem, such as advertise or televise.

At the risk of sounding like a style guide, but in the hope you may find them useful for reference, these are the words always spelled in -ise, whatever your local rule about the rest: advertise, advise, apprise, chastise, circumcise, comprise, compromise, demise, despise, devise, disfranchise, enfranchise, enterprise, excise, exercise, improvise, incise, premise, revise, supervise, surmise, surprise, televise.

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Page created 18 Jan 2003