–ise or –ize?

There is nothing like a good rant!  It may not improve the world, and it may not fix the issue that initiated the rant, but it feels so good afterwards.

This rant is about the suggestion that the use of a ‘z’ in words like nationalization is somehow wrong, or American. It must be admitted that there are words with a ‘z’ in them that are purely American, like advertize, or maybe just wrong, like surmize. Sometimes it is simply error — a word whose spelling is not known, and whose correct spelling is not sought, is arbitrarily given a ‘z’ in the honest but mistaken belief it is correct. Sometimes words with a z-form in American represent an older (perhaps Elizabethan) form of English that made its way to the USA before the language was standardized in England. More likely, the American ‘z’ is one of Noah Webster’s attempts to ‘standardize’ or ‘improve’ American usage of English when he produced his famous dictionary in 1828, in which his decision to make deliberate and extensive revisions of spelling was implemented — he has been described as a great spelling reformer (I also had a go at reforming spelling when I was at school but it wasn’t appreciated). Webster evidently decided to use a ‘z’ wherever he considered the pronunciation called for it. This was a highly unusual example of a dictionary leading the written language rather than attempting to reflect it.

This polemic is nothing to do with the Americans. If we overlook the various words that the Americans deliberately choose to spell differently, the majority of words that take a ‘z’, or an ‘s’ that is pronounced like a ‘z’, seem to fall very clearly into those that must take an ‘s’ (like compromise, where the derivation is –misser), those that must take a ‘z’, (like prize), and the rest, about which controversy apparently rages (if only here).

I have been to a great deal of trouble to look into this, looking not only at various text books and style manuals, but also at a range of literature over the years to see which spelling was preferred. I refer only to cases of the third type given above where writers or their publishers have come to regard the use of 's' as an acceptable alternative to the 'z' (we are all agreed that misuse of the two other types would be an error).

It seems to me that in books printed in England the use of the ‘z’ overwhelmingly predominated until the Second World War, though on a far smaller scale the ‘s’ can be found used by some printing houses, even in Victorian times. Textbooks set out the correctness of using ‘z’, some of them setting out in considerable detail the rationale for use of ‘s’ or ‘z’ depending on origin. After the Second World War the ‘s’ alternative is more frequently offered as a possibility and some house style manuals (though not Oxford’s) indicate a preference for ‘s’ — not because of any suggestion that ‘z’ is wrong, mark you, but because ‘s’ had come to be tolerated and it avoided having to remember which usage is which. Recent manuals and dictionaries seem to have given up on the prescriptive use of a ‘z’, though it is usually offered as an alternative where correct.

It seems to me, summarizing, and using a ‘z’ correctly and non-Americanly, that:

For myself, I am very happy to keep using a ‘z’ where it is appropriate, and I do try hard to get it right but must admit to being inconsistent sometimes. Using the ‘z’ form, of course, invites people to pick me up on it, whence I refer them to the Oxford English Dictionary (the big one) and that generally ends the matter. On the whole it is not a book to pick a fight with.

I suppose even after being presented with the facts there will be people who will persist with the ‘s’ option, and that’s up to them — nothing more I can do. All I ask is that people determined to use the ‘s’ do not regard those using the ‘z’ as using Americanisms!!!

Many of the great publishing houses are happy with ‘ -ize’ etc endings, and large, influential organizations such as London Transport invariably used the ‘- ize’ form in posters and other public communications, though their modern PC-originated material leaves much to be desired.

I attach below (actually it is in the next column) various references that shed more light on the matter. Note that some house style guidance which has opted for the '- ise' form refers to alleged controversy about the more correct spelling about which 'the authorities differ'. House style guides are not authorities of themselves, although they may rely on them and refer to them. Of the ‘authorities’ I have sought, they all indicate '- ize' as etymologically correct and I have not yet found any 'authority' that explains how '- ise' can be correct; if any reader knows of one I'd be glad to hear of it and will be happy to quote it below.

And do I feel better? Well as a matter of fact, I rather think I do.


Some Helpful Authorities and References

Collins Authors and Printers Dictionary, F Howard Collins, OUP 1973 (11th Edn)

-ise, the following end in -ise, not -ize: advertise, affranchise, apprise (to inform), chastise, circumcise, comprise, compromise, demise, despise, devise, disfranchise, disguise, emprise, enfranchise, enterprise, excise, exercise, franchise, improvise, incise, merchandise, premise (vb.), prise (to force open), reprise, seise (law), supervise, surmise, surprise, televise.

{See also -ize, -yse.}

-ize, the normal suffix added to the stems of nouns in -ism (criticize), -ization (civilize), -izer (appetize), -y (agonize), or to a complete noun (canalize). Many common examples are given in this book.

{See also -ise, -yse.}

Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers at the Oxford University Press, orig by Horace Hart 1893, this edition (37th) 1967


THE -ize, not -ise, ending should be used where both spellings are in use. Generally, -ize is a suffix applied to the stems of nouns ending in -ism, -ization, -izer, -y, or to the complete noun.

agony − agonize
civilization − civilize
appetizer − appetize
criticism − criticize
canal − canalize
transistor − transistorize

The ending -ise is correct when the noun has –is ­as part of the stem, e.g. in the syllables -vis­ (seeing), -cis- (cutting), -mis- (putting), and is also used for those nouns which do not terminate in -ism, -ization, etc. Exceptions are aggrandize­ment/aggrandize, recognition/recognize, and others noted in C.O.D. as `assimilated to verbs in -ize'. Reference should be made to C.O.D. and Collins, Authors' and Printers' Dictionary, if there is any doubt. Some of the more common -ise words follow:

advertise         disguise            misadvise
advise             emprise            premise
apprise            enterprise        prise (open)
chastise           excise              reprise
circumcise       exercise           revise
comprise         expertise         supervise
compromise     franchise         surmise
demise            improvise        surprise
despise            incise              televise
devise             merchandise    treatise

In words such as analyse, catalyse, paralyse, -lys­is part of the Greek and not a suffix like -ize. There is therefore no parallel with -ize words, and consequently the spelling -yze is etymologically incorrect, and not to be used — except when following American printing style.

Concise Oxford Dictionary

-ize, -ise1(-iz), suf. forming vbs. w. senses (I) v.t. treat in specified way (catechize, monopolize),(2) v.i. follow specified practice (philosophize), have specified feeling (sympathize),(3) v.t. & i. bring or come into specified state (Anglicize, pulverize, volatilize), (4) v.t. & i.treat or act according to method of (bowdlerize, pasteurize), (5) v.t. impregnate with or affect with or provide with

(oxidize, syphilize, accessorize); so –ize A'TION, -iZER', a sufs.[f. or after F -iser f.LL -izare f.Gk -ize].

Pocket Oxford Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1961 Edition

-ize, sur. forming vbs meaning esp. make or become such (Ameri­canize, etherealize). The words properly spelt with -ise (advertise, surprise &c.)are of different origin. [Gk –izo.

The Complete Plain Words, Sir Ernest Gowers, HMSO 1973 (2nd imp, 2nd edn of 1954 original work)


On the question whether verbs like organise and nouns like organi­sation should be spelt with an s or a z the authorities differ. There are some verbs (e.g. advertise, comprise, despise, advise, exercise and surmise) which are never spelt with a z in this country. There are others (such as organize) for which many people, particularly if they have had a classical education, prefer a z; but the latest authorities incline to the view that in these cases s is permissible. This being so, the simplest course is to use an s in all cases, for that will never be wrong, whereas z sometimes will be. But do not condemn those who use a z in its right place.*

*Fowler's more austere view was that ize should always be used where the verb has been formed by using the suffix equivalent to the Greek suffix -izein (which retained its z when Latinised), but that ise should continue to be always used for words such as those quoted above which have been formed in a different way. Gowers specifically rejected this view in The Complete Plain Words but allowed it to stand in his revised edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage. His first, more permissive view is, I think, clearly preferable. I cannot regard realise or Latinise as wrong. B.D.F.

{NB. I have checked 'Fowler's Modern English Usage, 2nd edn, and the 'z' form is clearly preferred, but this is hardly surprising as it emanates from Oxford's Clarendon Press of which this preference is part of their house style. However the alphabetical entry on the subject of choosing '- ize' make a powerful case and also draws attention to it being the standard form of the Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and The Times, and readers may choose to look it up for themselves. I should state The Times has recently given up on the 'z', but then the Thunderer is not what it was.}

The ABC of Plain Words, by Sir Ernest Gowers, HMSO 1951


On the question whether verbs like organise and nouns like organisation should be spelt with an s or a z the authorities differ. The O.E.D. favours universal ize, arguing that the suffix is always in its origin either Greek or Latin and in both languages it is spelt with a z. Other authorities, including most English printers, recommend universal ise. Fowler stands between these two opinions. He points out that the O.E.D.'s advice over-simplifies the problem, since there are some verbs (e.g. advertise, comprise, despise, exercise and surmise) which are never spelt ize in this country. On the other hand, he says " the difficulty of remembering which these ise verbs are is the only reason for making ise universal, and the sacrifice of significance to ease does not seem justified ". This austere conclusion will not commend itself to everyone. It does not do so to the authors of the A.B.C. of English Usage, who say roundly " the advice given here is to end them all in ise ", a verdict with which I respectfully agree.

Tillotsons House Style of Typesetting, Tillotsons of Bolton, 1955


This question has long been disputed by authorities without a generally acceptable solution being reached. The weight of scholarship favours a distinction being made between words of Latin or Greek origin (-izare, -izein) and of French origin (-iser). Phonetic considerations favour the z.

The subject is complicated by those words in common use (advertise, chastise, comprise, etc.) which can only take the s ending. If we choose the z in debatable cases we must bear these exceptions in mind, a task which those who prepare copy and set type may well be spared.

Further, we find the 'z' frequently unacceptable to our customers, the 's' scarcely ever so, that to choose the 'z' as our basic style would seriously complicate composing room practice.

Wherever the -ize or -ise termination may with justification be used, we use -ise.

Other Web References

Kate Grady ‘-ise or -ize
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