That old ‘ise’ vs ‘ize’ chestnut

Originally published 12 September 2013 on

I love my new career as an editor and copywriter.

Looking at the ins and outs of language and how it changes with time and geography fascinates me.

Raised in Canada, of course we knew that there was a difference between the way we said ‘zed’ and Americans said ‘zee’. Ah yes, and ‘colour’ and ‘color’.

But I was unaware of other regional differences. After arriving in London to work, after two years in Brussels, I remember sitting down in my new managerial position, and correcting the spelling on a document written by one of my project workers.

He sat in silence while I corrected ‘organisation’ to ‘organization’ and it was only a week or two later that I discovered, to my horror, that I had been completely ignorant of the difference between ‘ise’ and ‘ize’ in the United Kingdom. ‘Why didn’t you say anything?’ I asked but he just shrugged. He’d treated me (and continued to treat me) with passive aggression, and it was just another proof (to him) of my foreign ignorance and ill suitability for the job.

Here in Australia, it was a slow process, but I finally got used to using ‘ise’ instead of ‘ize’ for everything. It’s much easier here to just decide that there are no exceptions and to stick with that construction, whether to spell a word like ‘authorise’ or ‘realise’, even though a number of z’s have snuck into writing here.

Recently, I got a job editing a report for an international agency that uses the Oxford English Dictionary as their guide on spelling.

This should be easy enough, I thought, as Oxford implies (to me at least) spelling from the United Kingdom.

But I was surprised to find out they spell nearly ALL variants with a ‘z’.



But: it’s not possible to go all the way with ‘ize’ as I found a handful of exceptions:


It kind of wanted to make my head explode! But at the same time, I find it kind of amusing. When people find out I’m an editor, they picture me with a tight bun, pulling my hair back from my face, and lecturing them on language rules. But because there are so many rules and different kinds of rules, the aim is consistency, not perfection (though perfection is nice to strive for), and I think a good editor needs to be as flexible and adaptable as they are strict.

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