Realize vs. Realise: What’s the Difference?

“Realize” and “realise” mean the same thing. When they’re spoken out loud, they sound the same. The spelling difference is the only thing separating the two.

You may have noticed that many British books, magazines, and newspapers use the spelling “realise,” while North American publications always spell “realize” with a Z. Although the word has been around since the 17th century, there’s still no hard-and-fast rule about when to use the -ise variant, which is popular outside of the United States and Canada. BBC America advises, “…The -ize ending on verbs is the most commonly acceptable version in the world. In British English, either version is fine.” In American English, only -ize is correct. If you want your writing to be accessible to American readers, we recommend using the -ize spelling. 

That said, many illustrious English-language publishers in the United Kingdom and former British territories (excluding North America) still promote the -ise spelling. Although the use of realize is more common worldwide, some linguists and writers have a soft spot for the Anglicized version of the word.

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Etymology

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “realize” originated with the Latin word res, meaning  “property, goods, matter, thing, affair.” By Late Latin, realis meant “actual.” Next, the word made its way into the Old French language with reel and the English language with “real”, both adjectives that mean “actual.” In French, the word réaliser, meaning “to make real,” came into usage in the 1500’s. The English started using “realize” in 1610. 

As Merriam-Webster notes, the variant “realise” did not appear for another century and a half: “…First, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in a letter by none other than lexicographer Samuel Johnson. He wrote on December 30, 1755, ‘Designs are nothing in human eyes till they are realised by execution.'” By choosing this suffix, Johnson probably intended a nod to the word’s French origins, réaliser. The –ize spelling is more consistent with Greek (-izein) and Late Latin (-izare) influences.

Noah Webster, in his influential texts on American spelling and grammar, codified the American English spelling. As his namesake dictionary explains, “In his 1806 A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, he favored realize as well as cruize, merchandize (noun), praize, and poize.” North American writers, including Canadian English speakers, began to pick up Webster’s books and think of “realize” as the proper variant. Needless to say, “poize” and “praize” did not meet the same fate. Some –ize spellings failed to catch on with Americans, Canadians, or anyone else. 

Meanwhile, the British couldn’t decide whether to favor –ise or -ize. As BBC America describes it, “Once things started to become codified, a struggle began in British English.” For words that came from Greek and Latin, the -ize ending made the most sense. For other words, especially those with longer suffixes, the -ise ending fit more comfortably. Since “realize” came from both réaliser (French) and realis (Latin), linguists could make an intelligent argument for either suffix.  

Today, there’s no real consensus on the other side of the pond. BBC America points out how the different spellings remain a matter of preference in the U.K., noting, “The Oxford University Press uses -ize endings in their style guide, but the Guardian does not.”

Definitions

Merriam-Webster defines the word “realize” as a verb.

It’s meanings include:

  • to bring into concrete existence, accomplish
  • to cause to seem real, make appear real
  • to convert into actual money
  • to bring or get by sale, investment, or effort, gain
  • to conceive vividly as real, be fully aware of

The same dictionary defines “realise” as a chiefly British spelling of the same word. 

Synonyms

According to Thesaurus.com, synonyms for realize include:

  • comprehend
  • get
  • grasp
  • know
  • recognize
  • think
  • understand
  • bring about
  • carry out
  • complete
  • do
  • accomplish
  • achieve
  • attain
  • produce
  • reach
  • receive

The Words in Context

“’We actually read a lot together, in total silence. But we seem to have chatted a lot. I didn’t realise how much we chatted.’” 
The Irish Times, “John Clarke on Missing His Wife Marian…”

“’Pogba’s obviously realised that that number 10 position is no longer really his because Bruno Fernandes is going to start every game when he’s fit.'”
The Mirror, “Paul Pogba’s Bruno Fernandes ‘Realisation’…”

“Meghan McCain’s realization about the necessity of universal parental leave is wonderful, and I’m grateful for it.”
The Washington Post, “Meghan McCain Learned About the Need…”

“Jedwab said those worried about bilingualism need to realize it comes as a natural response to the growing language diversity of Montreal residents.”
Montreal Gazette, “In the Workplace, It Pays to Speak Both English and French”

“Mr Poynton said more people were realising the South West was an amazing region with its forests, beaches, restaurants and vineyards, and were looking to buy.”
The Sydney Morning Herald, “Perth Power Couple’s Yallingup Estate…”

“Armstrong says she’d read the novel as a child and was drawn to the material because of Alcott’s ‘insight into the psyche of young women coming of age and for the first time realizing the limitations and narrowness of what the world and life defines as women’s roles.'”
The Hollywood Reporter, “Hollywood Flashback: Winona Ryder Got an Oscar Nom…”

Sources: 

  1. https://www.thesaurus.com/browse/realize?s=t
  2. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/realize
  3. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/realise
  4. https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=realize
  5. https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/realize-vs-realise-difference#:~:text=Earliest%20Usage,rendered%20as%20realize%20in%20English.
  6. https://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2014/07/brits-spell-realize-s
  7. https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/tv-radio-web/john-clarke-on-missing-his-wife-marian-finucane-i-didn-t-realise-how-much-we-chatted-1.4442996
  8. https://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/football/news/man-utd-paul-pogba-fernandes-23266863
  9. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/meghan-mccain-paid-parental-leave-policy/2021/01/05/4a5a8eea-4edd-11eb-83e3-322644d82356_story.html
  10. https://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/in-the-workplace-it-pays-to-speak-both-english-and-french
  11. https://www.smh.com.au/national/western-australia/perth-power-couple-s-yallingup-estate-hits-the-market-amidst-south-west-property-shortage-20201222-p56pm6.html
  12. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/hollywood-flashback-winona-ryder-got-an-oscar-nom-little-women-1994-1256878