Spelling matters: -ise or -ize?

Jan 21, 2014

A school in Queensland has caused a stir by using the spelling authorization with a z on its public noticeboard.

This has sparked a debate on radio as to what is the correct spelling and Macquarie has been asked to give advice.

The problem is an etymological one. Words which derive from Greek via Latin take the –ize ending to show their link to the Greek ending –izein. Words which have come into English from Old French take –ise to reflect the French ending. 

This is wonderful if we all knew our Greek and Latin and Old French and had the time to consider etymologies as we employed our words.

This has led to a desire for a practical solution. If you use the –ise spelling you have one exception – capsize which cannot for etymological reasons take the –ise ending, because, curiously, the origin of capsize is unknown. It has nothing to do with this debate.

If you go the other way and adopt the –ize ending, there is a larger list of exceptions, words which do not go back to Latin and Greek. Words like advertise, advise, comprise, compromise, despise, devise, exercise, improvise, revise, surprise, televise.

Of course you can disregard etymology completely and decide to spell everything with –ise or –ize, and this is happening. The British think of the Americans as having adopted the –ize spelling for everything, while the Americans comment that the British way of doing business is to use –ise. Back in the first edition of the Australian Style Manual the decision was made that the Australian way would be to use -ise because we thought that was British. Of the course the real picture is much more confused.

Authorise is an interesting case because it does go back to Latin and Greek and therefore, etymologically speaking, should have –ize. The general style guide has overridden this and usually in Australian English it is spelled authorise. But there is always the exception.

Find more spelling tips and tricks in our Spelling Matters series.

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