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Criticizing -ize and -ise

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Written by Stan Carey

New verbs in English are often created by adding the suffix -ize or -ise to an existing noun or adjective. Browsing the recent entries in Macmillan’s crowd-sourced Open Dictionary, I see an abundance of such verbs: apostacize, blockchainize, Canadianize, diarize, disincentivize, estheticize, exoticize, gourmandize, Hispanicize, marmalize, proportionize, visibilize, winsorize.

When I typed this list, most of the words received a red underline in my word processor. The software’s dictionary does not recognize them, because they’re either new or obscure – as all words originally are. But this points to a common source of complaint: that these coinages are ‘ugly’ or ‘unnecessary’.



Garner’s Modern English Usage, for example, says that ‘neologisms ending in -ize are generally to be discouraged, for they are usually ungainly and often superfluous’. Ernest Gowers, in his revised edition of Fowler’s usage dictionary, wrote that while verbing with –ize is ‘useful and unexceptionable’ up to a point, it is done ‘with a freedom beyond reason’ and that most of the results are ‘inelegant’. Language users: know your limits!

The third edition of Fowler’s has a more progressive attitude. ‘There is always the danger of forming misleading impressions about such verbs,’ wrote its editor, Robert Burchfield. ‘One must be careful not to give the thumbs down to words simply because one has not encountered them before.’ And who can decide which words are ‘unnecessary’?

Certainly there are contexts where a writer or speaker should think twice about using a new or strange-sounding -ize word. But in the everyday exchange of language, there are no overriding reasons to avoid them; indeed, they can be a sign of linguistic play and creativity. As I’ve said before, unless you’re using language in a formal capacity, it’s yours to manipulate as you please.

Keep in mind too that words that seem new may be older than you think. Diarize is about two centuries old, while hospitalize, which the OED says is ‘frequently commented on as an unhappy formation’, dates to at least 1901. Materialize, dismissed by one 20th-century critic as ‘slang that should be avoided’, was used as early as 1710.

Then there is the vexed question of spelling. The –ise suffix comes from French, –ize from the earlier Greek. Popular lore says simplistically that -ize is American and -ise British. American English does mandate -ize, but it’s also standard in British usage and is the default for some publishers, including Macmillan and Oxford. British English also uses -ise, and it is house style for some newspapers and magazines, such as the Guardian and Economist. Englishes around the world use either.

The main thing is to be consistent in a given context, and to watch out for the words that always take -ise. These include advertise, advise, apprise, arise, chastise, comprise, compromise, demise, despise, devise, disguise, enfranchise, enterprise, excise, exercise, improvise, incise, merchandise, prise, revise, supervise, surmise, surprise, and televise.

Now go forth and verbalize.

 

About the author

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Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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