Authorise vs. authorize

For the verb meaning to grant authority or to give permission, authorize is the standard spelling in American and Canadian English. Authorise is standard in all main varieties of English outside North America.

The distinction extends to all derivative words. North Americans use authorized, authorizing, authorizes, and authorization, while English speakers from outside the U.S. and Canada use authorised, authorising, authorises, and authorisation.

Authorize is the older form, and it was standard even in British English until the second half of the 20th century. It is in the group of Classically derived words that traditionally took the -ize ending but have recently acquired -ise

The change is not wholly engrained, though. The Oxford English Dictionary, which usually favors British or UK spellings, still lists authorize as the primary spelling,1 and some British publishing houses also favor the old spelling.

In 21st-century edited British news publications, however, authorise appears about seven times for every instance of authorize, and authorize is even less common in 21st-century Australian and New Zealand publications.


These are North American publications:

On Thursday Turkey’s parliament authorized military action against the Bashar Assad regime to its south. [Wall Street Journal]

The new framework … will provide a national strategy for authorizing and monitoring the use of orphan drugs. [Globe and Mail]

The United States has been detaining terrorism suspects indefinitely since 2001, relying on an authorization by Congress to use military force against perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks. [New York Times]

The committee voted Monday to ask council to authorize the aging castle’s board to undertake a request for proposals. [National Post]

And these are from outside North America (British, UK, Australian, etc.):

It authorises police to impound Pakistani newspapers in the three eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar and Nuristan. [BBC News]

Mary Robinson’s life and achievements were vividly described in the authorised biography by Olivia O’Leary and Helen Burke in 1998. [Irish Times]

Virgin Australia has urged the competition watchdog to refuse a Qantas request for interim authorisation of its alliance with Emirates. [The Australian]

He said the UN Security Council had allowed itself to be “abused” last year by authorising “all necessary measures.” [Independent Online]


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10 thoughts on “Authorise vs. authorize”

  1. I am interested to know where the 7:1 ratio comes from. British National Corpus data indicate usage of the -ise variants outnumber -ize about 3:2 and 3:1 in the Australian Corpus of English. Is there some reason why ‘authorize’ is such an outlier? Is it equated with ‘improvise’, perhaps, i.e. an exception to the rule? (‘Authorize’ is also ‘standard’ in British and Australian English, alongside ‘authorise’—just to be pedantic.) And isn’t it just an example of a spelling variant rather than a ‘word in transition’?

    • We get those numbers by searching a large number of periodicals and books that are searchable online (the vast majority of 21st-century books and news publications are searchable), and adding up the numbers from the different searches. And when we’re addressing current spelling or usage, as in this post, we limit the search to 2002 to the present. Our U.K. searches cover a few dozen news publications and other periodicals, and we have some tricks for searching Google Books that allow us to limit our searches to U.K. books and journals (even though this isn’t built in to Google’s Book search–we search for the words or phrases in question in combination with a set of phrases, in quotation marks, that only appear in the British editions of books from major British publishing companies), and this lets us search thousands of British books.

      There are limitations to this way of doing things. Most important, it’s hard for us to show our work (we’re working on creative ways to show our work without giving away our secrets to competing sites), but it also ignores language use that is not carefully edited or is not associated with a major publisher–which may explain the discrepancy between the BNC data on “authorize” and what we see in our searches. Our hunch on this particular issue is that it is another case of writers and editors from outside North America consciously turning away from what some might perceive as the more American spelling. Something similar has happened with “realize,” which used be the standard British spelling but is almost nonexistent in British news publications from this year. We have no way to prove that these trends come from an impulse not to spell words the American way, but our sense from moderating the comments to this site is that there is a strong anti-American-English current in today’s British society, at least among people who care about these things enough to comment on sites like this.

      • Thanks for your thoughtful reply and I do like your work.

        (See my earlier comment under ‘realize vs. realise’ for my views on usage of -ize and -ise.)

        I suppose it depends on how one defines ‘standard’, but since British and Australian English dictionaries do not indicate that the -ize spellings are ‘nonstandard’ they are therefore ‘standard’ in those varieties of English, even if used less often.

        As to why -ize is used less, I tend to agree with you. At the same time, British writers have all but abandoned ‘connexion’ in favour of ‘connection’ and Australian ‘programme’ for ‘program’, so something else is going on as well.

        Moreover, I see the -or spelling (e.g. color, favor, etc.) used more and more by Australians and Britons on social media. Mind you, I also see a hell of a lot of text speak!

      • You might be right but personally I don’t for a moment think the -ise preference is an indication of Anti-Americanism. I believe it is laziness. There are a number of words that must be spelled -ise (compromise, advertise, surprise et al) and if you spell everything -ise, you don’t have to remember which is which.

      • >>…there is a strong anti-American-English current in today’s British society…

        That’s certainly been my experience. I’m middle-aged, middle-class, possibly Middle England. Many of my family and friends seem to be fighting a “war” against “American” spellings. The exception would be my brother … but then he’s a lexicographer :)

        Thank you for a wonderful site.

  2. I am chuckling every time I read “English speakers outside US”
    no,no,no my friend. English is ours, British, US took it, made it easier ,called American. So, it is “English” outside England and UK.

    • The main post did say outside of North America (US & Canada). Also, funny that you would say the US took English and made it easier since this article implies that everyone used the -ize spelling and the UK are the ones who changed it to -ise (which sure looks easier/lazier to me).

      • Easier to you does not mean easier to everyone else. Who is that ‘everyone’ that used -ize spelling? English as British has standards, but no one will tell you that -ise is wrong or -ize is wrong. Both are accepted here in Britain. US English has its own grammar and they use -ize for all cases. There is nothing lazy in typing z instread of s. Every language changes during centuries anyway.

  3. Maybe the change has something to do with increased PC usage/typing. While hand writing S and Z are very similar (Z may even be slightly easier/faster since it starts on the left), it is much easier to type S vs. Z because of the location of the keys (row and which finger you strike them with).

  4. I am somewhat insulted that Canada is being lumped into the -ize category with the US. Though we do share a great many linguistic quirks with our neighbours, I was taught as a very early age that the spelling to use in Canada was -ise. However, though both versions are accepted.


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