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"Ise" or "Ize"?

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Freedom of choice can be a terrible responsibility. Faced with two acceptable alternative spellings in English, how do you make up your mind? Do you work for an organisation or an organization? Last year, did your company realise profits or realize them? Is it simply a matter of choosing between "British" English and "American" English? This article should help you the next time you find yourself agonising or agonizing over this question.

People who are trying to master English as a foreign language may find inconsistencies in the spelling rules to be one of the most troublesome aspects. In the case of the suffix "ise" or "ize", you have probably learned that this is one of those quaint distinctions between British and American style. Tony Blair is surely scandalised by Clinton's notorious womanizing and Cherie can probably sympathise with Hilary for feeling traumatized by it.

On the Continent, of course, we're much too busy trying to harmonize our economies to become mesmerized by the personal lives of our politicians. And speaking of harmonizing, why not just choose "ise" or "ize" once and for all? Surprise! When it comes to English, there will always be exceptions.

"It's all Greek to me" is an English expression which means that something is confusing, the equivalent of the French "J'y perds mon latin". This brings us to the heart of the matter. The difference between "ize" and "ise" is that the "ize" spelling is derived from the Greek "izein" while "ise" is the French version which comes from the Latin "izare".

To summarize, in modern French, the suffix has become "iser" for words derived from the Greek such as "baptiser, évangéliser and organiser" as well as for those formed from the Latin such as "civiliser, cicatriser, humaniser". On this basis, historically, some have chosen the spelling "ise" for all of these words in English, while others have reserved "ise" for those derived from Latin and "ize" for those from Greek, such as "analyze or theorize". The origins of some words ending in the "ize" sound have nothing to do with Greek and have thus remained exempt from the controversy. For example, the following are always spelled with "ise": advertise, advise, apprise, chastise, comprise, compromise, demise, despise, disenfranchise, disguise, enterprise, excise, exercise, improvise, supervise, surmise, surprise.

Noah's lark
Before movable type printing technology was developed, there was little need for spelling rules. The development of mechanical printing changed all that: systematization and standardization! Unlike other languages, for which State academies have been established to handle questions of spelling, there has never been one for English. English spelling has never been subjected to the kind of systematic reforms that continental languages have. For this reason, spelling has changed little in the past 300 years. However, in the absence of an academy, dictionaries became important authorities, and not all lexicographers shared the same taste. With his dictionary from 1828, the American Noah Webster is responsible for establishing the "ize" tradition in America, based on the idea that words should be written the way they sound. We can take comfort in the fact that he originally wanted to break much more radically from the British spelling, but restrained himself out of considerations as a publisher.

Sign of the Times
These are all matters for linguists, of course. The fact is that in the modern world, the "ize" suffix became established in America and Canada while "ise" took hold in Great Britain and Australia. Americans grow up writing "ize" and most Brits are accustomed to "ise". However, observant readers will soon find some inconsistencies here. Although most British book publishers and newspapers use "ise", a few influential publishing houses in England prefer the "ize" spelling. The Oxford University Press, publishers of many dictionaries and books on the English language, and the Cambridge University Press, publishers of the Encyclopedia Britannica, use "ize". Even the venerable Times newspaper was long a hold-out for "ize" but apparently switched to "ise" overnight in the mid-1980s. To add to the confusion, the Times Literary Supplement, a separate publication, prints "ize" spelling not only in articles contributed by American writers, but throughout the entire magazine.

In international business, it seems that "anything goes". Nowadays, the European Commission may be the closest thing we have to an academy. The translation service of the Commission advocates "ise" for the reason that it avoids questions of exceptions (see above). Etymological purists notwithstanding, this is probably the most convenient solution for non-native speakers. Meanwhile, you will find that most company Web sites use "ize" spelling, so once again, technology is making its mark on the language and it looks like spelling will remain a matter of choice for some time to come.

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