Friday, May 16, 2008

That pesky English suffix

English can be hard. Here's a letter to my Book of Days co-editor, Diana Schuetz, the estimable and English-savvy Friendly Fixer (FF) from Wyoming, USA:

Dear FF,

As I mentioned some months ago, I have switched from the 'standard English' (originally French) '-ise' verb ending to the 'American' '-ize', because I see common sense in it.

The familiar English suffixes are usually '-ise', but sometimes, maddeningly, '-ize', and I believe it depends on whether the word's root is French or Graeco-Latin. Almost nobody these days can deal with this arcane principle. I'm not frightfully bad at English, I have a BA in the study of English linguistics and literature, and can read passably well in French (I have no Greek or Latin), but I could never figure how to apply the rule, so I doubt that large numbers of my countrypeople can.

I've worked with quite a few excellent editors and proofreaders but have never known another who was in command of the convention as it is commonly applied Down Under. So I ditched it, and feel good about my decision, regardless of the fact that some of the two billion (and counting) traditional English speakers now probably see me as something of a language traitor. However, I note that Australia is especially entrenched in the French suffix (woe betide any Aussie who uses a Yank 'z' -- he is worse than a cheese-eating surrender monkey), and many people in Commonwealth countries now use '-ize'.

I was pleased to discover that I have Fowler's Modern English Usage and the Oxford English Dictionary on my side:
"Indeed, the OED firmly deprecates this usage [the -ise suffix], stating, '[T]he suffix…, whatever the element to which it is added, is in its origin the Gr[eek] -ιζειν, L[atin] -izāre; and, as the pronunciation is also with z, there is no reason why in English the special French spelling in -iser should be followed, in opposition to that which is at once etymological and phonetic.'"
Source: Wikipedia
However, now I'm having trouble with what seem to be inconsistencies in the American usage. Are you aware of these? Vide:
Advertise, advise, apprise, arise, chastise, circumcise, incise, excise, comprise, compromise, demise, despise, devise, disguise, exercise, franchise, improvise, revise, supervise, surmise, surprise, and televise (etc?).
How the hell do you guys remember these, and why? Would Noah Webster, who reformed your spelling all those years ago, approve? Do you ever see these words with '-ize' endings?

I fear I shall have to learn these pesky words by rote. Is that how it's done, or do I now memorIZE a mnemonic?


Update: Diana replies:
Part of the problem with the list you give of American words that end in -ise is that the -ise isn't a suffix in those words – it's part of the word itself (advert isn't an American abbreviation, so the preceding still applies). The ending -ize would be different from British or Australian use if it was a suffix of a word that could exist on its own, such as "sterilize" – "sterile" plus "-ize."

Yes, we have memorized from childhood which words are spelled with an -ise and which with an -ize (no mnemonics that I'm aware of); though, as we get away from using a particular word often, we are relegated to looking it up in the dictionary, just to be certain! You will not be surprised to hear, I'm sure, that the people who have difficulty spelling the listed words also can't spell many other words! The usage, or misusage, of "loose" and "lose" come immediately to mind.

I hope this sheds at least a small amount of light on the reason for the -ise in the words you listed, even if it doesn't solve the issue of how to know when to use which ending!

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