-ize / -ise

The Random-ise Project

I've been doing a little investigation into the use of -ize suffix verbs and their spelling (-ize or -ise) in British English.
But I'm also interested in the development of the use of -ize suffix verbs (eg realize/realise) compared with the use of French-based -ise verbs (eg surprise). And in the extent to which there was consistency in the spelling of these verbs, or a lack of it, in early publishing.

Magazines and periodicals

These now have their own start page here


For books, I first check the text at Project Gutenberg. This is an HTML file and very easy to search (especially with a little program I wrote to do the donkey work). Having found all the instances of -ize and -ise verbs at Project Gutenberg, I try and find a British-published edition at Google Books as near as possible to the original publishing date and see what spellings they used.
Searching digitised versions of old books at Google Books or elsewhere is not always so straightforward, as some parts of the text have been corrupted, due to the condition of the original book that has been digitised. Or words are split over a line-break, and don't show up in search. And in older books, verbs like realized are sometimes printed as realiz'd, just to make life interesting.
As an example, for Milton's Paradise Lost, Google Books comes up with all eight instances of advise found in the Project Gutenberg text, but searching the PDF format of the facsimile at Archive.org brings up none. I wondered if this might be due to the practice of using of an f-like letter to represent s in early publishing, and sure enough, searching for advife and surprife is more successful.
What I have learned is that with digitised books, there seem to be two digital versions: the (photographic?) one we see, and a background plain text version, and it seems to depend on how this latter has been treated as to how successful searching is. In one case at least I have found texts shown with s endings in the facsimile showing up with a z in search.
I deal with magazines rather differently. Here it is difficult to find HTML texts at Project Gutenberg, except for single issues, which are very time consuming to search. Most magazines were republished in yearly or more likely six-monthly volumes. These I try and find at Google Books, but you can only do exact whole word searches at Google Books, so I have a set group of ten of the most common -ize verbs, and I search for them and their variants, both with a z and with an s.

Conclusions so far

  • The very first -ize suffix verbs to come into English, verbs like authorise and recognise, took the Old English ending -isen, as the letter Z hardly existed in Old English. Once the letter Z and its pronunciation had become established, however, these verbs began to be spelt with a Z, and by the end of the 14th century, the Z spelling was more or less standard.
  • These -ize suffix verbs were not used very much until the 18th century. On the other hand, use of the limited number of French -ise verbs was very popular. They were occasionally also spelt with a Z.
  • From at least the end of the sixteenth century,as well as adopting -ize suffix verbs from Latin and Greek, often via French, the -ize suffix was being added to existing native English nouns.
  • There was a lot of inconsistency in spelling of both -ize suffix verbs and French -ise verbs right from the beginning, and well into the middle of the nineteenth century.
  • In the eighteenth century, the use of -ize verbs increased substantially, as is evident, for example, Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, 1759.
  • For some reason, some British publishers started to spell -ize verbs with an s in the first half of the nineteenth century. The move from z to s happened very rapidly. All six of Jane Austen's novels were originally published (1811-1818) with -ize endings. When Richard Bentley started republishing them in 1832-1833, in the 'Standard Novels' series, they had nearly all acquired -ise endings.
  • Conventional wisdom puts this change by British publishers down to a mistaken analogy with French -ise verbs, but so far, I've been unable to find any contemporary discussion of the topic. My gut feeling is that it had a lot more to do with consistency. Once publishers changed to s, the levels of consistency improved greatly.

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