This page originated as a link in AmericanCulturalAssumption
English may be the most pathologically eclectic collector of terms of any living language. Because of the openness to words from any other language or culture, and because English has non-phonetic spelling that is pronounced in a variety of ways worldwide, English spelling is horribly inconsistent. Accuracy in spelling is no mark of native intelligence, only of an ability to memorize a lot of irrelevant exceptions; a task better suited to computers these days, anyway.
On the contrary, it IS a mark of native intelligence. Memorization of large quantities of data is the hallmark of our education system and comprises most of IQ tests. Although rote memorization is often overemphasized (notice the Z's haha).
Which spelling is desirable?
In England, disdain for American English is commonplace (eg., Briton
, please, rather than Britisher
- I seldom if ever see "Britisher" used in the States - when we want to refer to our cousins 'cross the pond, we typically use one of "Brit", "British" (as an adjective, not as a noun), "Englishman" (see BritishVsEnglish - a subject of endless confusion for us yanks), or "limey". :)
It irritates the British that British English allows color
is customary), but American English does not allow criticise
- Required by whom? Grammar-school teachers? Criticize is the preferred spelling in the US, but criticise certainly shows up. And given us 'Merkins penchant for bad speling anyway, this seldom shows up on the proverbial radar.
British English allows both patronise
, and so these are listed in alphabetical
order in a dictionary (unless it's an Oxford dictionary). Unfortunately, many readers incorrectly suppose this order hints that -ise
is better than -ize
In fact, however, authorize
was in use centuries before the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth Day of July 1776; etymologically, colonize
is better than colonise
Well, at the time the Declaration was written, it was written by UK subjects using The King's English. It was only after signing the Declaration and winning the subsequent war that they stopped using The King's English.
- And some time after that, as divergent evolution came into effect, as the two nations were separated by an ocean, and communications between the US and UK required sending correspondence by ship.
This used to be recognized by all the major publishers.
Suddenly, the English newspaper, The Times, decided to use organise
instead of organize
, the editor probably imagining that he was opposing U.S. influence.
At that time, I doubt TheTimes thought U.S. influences worthy of opposing. The shift from z's to s's, like many other shifts in English since AmericanEnglish forked off, were part of the movement towards seeing the British Empire as the New Roman Empire. This led the British elite to be ashamed of their language's Germanic roots, and to seek to adopt Greek/Latin features into the language. The no-split-infinitive rule is from the same drive.
[This is plain wrong. The -ize suffix is from Greek and the -ise suffix is from French, so a switch away from Germanic roots is a complete red herring. Had the English of the time been seeking to adopt Greek/Latin features into the language, they would have settled on the Greek (and Latin) -ize, not -ise. What happened is that the introduction of -ize was more successful in the USA than it was in Britain. To some extent, the proponents of -ize have been responsible for their own downfall by being the strictest upholders of the rule that -ise is sometimes mandatory.)]
[Can you be more precise as to what was wrong? Why is the insistence on -ize in the USA regarded as a "success", in comparison with permitting both spellings, while observing that "ize" has the merit that it reflects the Latin/Greek etymology?
["Successful" is not a value judgement but a reference to an evolutionary outcome. British English has evolved from a mixture of French and Greek spellings towards an almost universal adoption of the French practice. American English has evolved towards an almost universal adoption of the Greek spelling, where the etymology allows. Thus both -ise and -ize have been "successful", in evolutionary terms, in different environmental niches.]
[I have known someone say their teacher preferred them to use -ise, but I've never heard of any teacher justifying that choice on the grounds that it's the French practice. Rather, various people somehow got the idea that it was "better" English, apparently with no proper justification at all. However, many aspects of English usage ceased to be taught in most British schools in the second half of the twentieth century, making it possible for significant changes to become established.
Some years later, The Daily Telegraph followed suit. Even the Cambridge University Press eventually succumbed. I think the Oxford University Press is holding out, however. With help from the OxfordEnglishDictionary
, common sense may yet prevail.
(Oxford? Common sense? You've clearly never been there! The Oxford analogue (socially, not technically) of the wiki is OxNet?
, and OxNet?
explains all http://www.wadham.ox.ac.uk/~jstacey/FAQs/ox.FAQ.html#53
The French must be laughing. The French language never uses the ize
suffix (in fact, the French hardly use the (pronounced) letter z
at all). Zut alors!
(z is quite common in French as an ending for the 2nd plural form of indicative present: vous savez.)
I've added 'pronounced' as you spotted my little pop at the French!
Note that whilst I strongly support realize
in preference to realise
instead of emphasise
, etc., the commentary above does not extend to the words analyze
, catalyze, etc., where the etymology is quite different; analyse
, etc., are acceptable (and customary) optional spellings in British English. Though, strictly, they should be the only correct spelling, as the Greek is spelt with a sigma ratehr than a zeta in those instances. Analyse, improvise, organize, realize, advertise.
Of course, I also exclude words such as surprise
For nearly all verbs that form nouns ending with ization
, the use of ize
) is etymologically justified - the only exception I know of is the verb improvise
, which is always so spelt (and forms improvisation
), even in American English.
It would be inconsistent to spell improvise
with a z.
To improvise is not to make something into improv, it's to work without planning or looking ahead: im-
(look, the same root as vision
). See the note below about how English spelling is actually more consistent than many people think.
I think it's worthwhile here to note -ise compared to -ice which is an entirely different issue from ize/ise.
In the UK:
A doctor has a practice.
I practise every day.
In the US, practice is commonly used in both instances. However, using "practise" as a noun is always wrong, in any form of English.
I give advice.
When I advise someone, I'm giving them advice.
I devise a device.
This is one mark of the pedant. See him froth and foam. Needs a bit of re-education Mao-style.
English doesn't allow 'color', but it does seem to allow the use of the American 'font' instead of the English 'fount'
And then there are the combined vowel forms ae (�) and oe (�). The Queen's English seems to use these somewhat extensively, as in "foetus" or "encyclopaedia"; whereas American English generally replaces them with the single letter "e"--"fetus", "encyclopedia".
The ae and oe diphthongs would not normally be written as a single glyph nowadays (except in a dictionary's pronunciation guide), but as two letters.
And let's not get started on "gaol". or tyre
English spelling is more consistent than you might think
Regarding "English spelling is horribly inconsistent,
" actually most of the inconsistency is in the Anglo-Saxon portion of the vocabulary, which is quite small (though it includes the most common words). Within the set of words from Latin and Greek roots, English spelling is almost perfectly consistent.
The spelling rules, however, are complicated. They relate to morphemes as much as to phonemes, and they also relate to some peculiarities of Latin. The classic example is the -tion
morpheme in words like nation, collection, rotation,
etc. Some people object that this "should" be spelled -shun
since that's how it's pronounced. But this neglects the fact that -tion
is the consistent spelling for the same meaning. The actual rule is not that phonemes map one-to-one onto letters, but that morphemes have spellings and pronunciations of their own. The spelling of ecstasy
is not inconsistent with democracy, meritocracy, plutocracy,
etc., because ecstasy is not a form of political rule. The word definite
is not spelled definate
means boundary or limit, and the letter a
would introduce inconsistency with definition, finish, infinite,
Seeming exceptions like collision
actually create consistency with other Latin-derived languages, which follow the same pattern. When you learn English spelling, you are actually learning the same set of classical roots that appear in other European languages. English has slightly different rules for each import language: in words from Greek, ch
is pronounced like k
and represents the Greek letter chi, k
is pronounced the same but represents the Greek letter kappa, ph
represents phi, etc.; in words from Latin, long vowels stay long and short vowels stay short (though context figures into spelling); in words from Hebrew, q
represents the Hebrew letter qoph, is pronounced like k
, and does not need to be followed by a u
, while k
represents the Hebrew letter kaph and is pronounced the same way; etc. These rules are chosen to fit the import language to English in a reasonable way, adjusting for the fact that English lacks some of the phonemes in the languages that we often borrow from. This faithfulness to import rules is what gives rise to the way English spelling is consistent with regard to morphemes. When we take a meaning from Latin, we spell its morpheme in a Latin way; when we take a meaning from Greek, we spell its morpheme in a Greek way; etc. Hence synergy
(suggesting "working together") rather than "sinnurjy" (suggesting nothing).
Our morpheme-oriented spelling is actually a fantastic compromise between a purely phonetic spelling and a purely semantic form of writing (where each meaning would be given a distinct symbol). The spelling of a word suggests both its meaning and its pronunciation. (Except for those crazy Anglo-Saxon words, of course. Those have no advantages at all to make up for their inconsistency or complexity.)
The real problem is that many schools teach people a false theory of how English spelling works (namely, that it's phoneme-oriented). When people find that English spelling doesn't match the theory, they often blame the language rather than the theory.
"Though this be madness, yet there is method in it." Welcome back, Ben, and thanks for the lesson.
Fascinating. So where can I read more about this kind of analysis of English morphemes and spelling and such? Can you recommend a book? (Please don't recommend the OED, I always found it to be too dry to read all the way through ;-) -- DougMerritt
Glad to hear you enjoyed the explanation! To pick up more of that kind of thing, a fine start is Fowler's Modern English Usage ISBN 0198604122
. The book is nothing more than a declaration of one man's opinions about matters of spelling, grammar, semantics, and pronunciation. One might reasonably disagree with Fowler's opinions. What one learns from Fowler is how
an educated person comes to opinions about usage. I got the above line of thought about the excellence of English spelling from an article titled "The Spelling and Pronunciation of English" by Wayne O'Neil, in a 1976 edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
. Perhaps someone else can recommend a more factual reference on English morphemes. It's interesting to see, though, how much you've picked up without even trying to, just by learning the written language. To see this, get together with a friend and take turns each suggesting a word and having the other person guess which language it came from: Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Greek, or Other. I tried this once with a co-worker who'd never thought about such things before, and we both got about 90% correct our first time trying. -- BenKovitz
Interesting, thanks for the reference. I've studied linguistics (and e.g. English etymology); it was very particularly the precise line of thought about the rationality of English spelling that did not ring a bell and that I'd like to follow up on.
I don't own a copy of Fowler, but since it is
rather famous, perhaps I should pick it up. I'm less interested in prescriptivist language mavens than I was before I studied a lot of descriptive linguistics, though. "One man's opinion" is very much the issue.
Just checked...yay! I already own that dictionary! I just never read that article before. I have every reason to think that you won't find anything more definitive, btw, because that dictionary also has an appendix of Indo-European roots, along with some related articles, and in the linguistics research literature, this is widely cited as not just the most definitive, but pretty much the only
really thorough single source on I.E. It's not just yet another random dictionary.
Thanks again. -- DougMerritt
There seems to be an ise/ize war going on on TooFewTemplateParameterLists
between those who favour initialisation
and those who want initialization
. My copy of the OxfordEnglishDictionary
indicates that these spellings are alternatives. -- JohnFletcher
The "ise" alternative isn't legitimate in American English. Wiki's own dictionary (and readership) has a USA/international bias, and Wiki has no mechanism for handling alternative spellings. Hence using "ize" makes good sense here, even if "ise" happens to be what you're more accustomed to. It also better supports searching and AccidentalLinking.
I did use ize
in the first place. -- JohnFletcher