I realize (or realise?) I may be splitting hairs here, but I find this question interesting, and I’ve never heard or seen it discussed before.

I was about to post a quote from Rich Hickey outside my cubicle, taken from an interview with him, in which the writer uses the traditional British spelling of realize. Hickey is an American, as am I, so I changed it back to the American spelling.

However, it got me thinking: if Hickey were British, should I spell it his way?

The question then is whether I should do so only if quoting something he wrote, or even if I were quoting something he spoke — and thus something he did not actually spell.

Tangentially: should I think of this as quoting Hickey himself, or quoting the author who quoted him?

My gut instinct is that if you’re quoting something written, then you should maintain whatever spelling the author used, and if something spoken then it’s debatable, and using the spelling of your dialect (or of your audience’s dialect) is probably okay.

But I’d like to know: do any conventions exist on this matter?

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    I already voted to close, so I can't do that again. But this question seems to me an even more exact duplicate than the one I suggested last time (if anyone of like mind still has any "ammo"! :). Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 2:47
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    If it's inside quote marks, it's exactly what was written, including spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. If it was quoted from speech, you're on your own, since it wasn't spelled to start with. Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 16:06
  • Isn't "realize" the American form, while "realise" is the British form? Commented Jun 1, 2020 at 18:43
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    @HelloGoodbye Yes. I think the ambiguity of the word "of" is making my meaning unclear to you. To me, the word itself is represented by the spelling "realize". So to refer to the British spelling, I write "the traditional spelling of realize" (which is, of course, realise). I am not using "of" to mean roughly "which is", as in the phrase "the traditional British spelling, which is realise" since I haven't yet introduced the word. To put it more directly, the word itself is realize and the traditional British of realize is realise. Note the use of "of" in that last sentence.
    – iconoclast
    Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 20:29

5 Answers 5


We can take a look at BBC News for an example of a quoted American (source):

"I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realise that life is that gift from God," [Mr Mourdock] said.

Now let's look at the New York Times quoting a Briton (source):

“I think what he’s achieved will never be bettered in terms of five consecutive Games,” Hoy said. “You start to realize what it means when you actually break it down and see what you have to do and the number of things that can go wrong.”

Unfortunately, many style guides overlook your exact question, but we can see in practice what news sources do. Short of poring over hundreds or thousands of articles from each outlet, it's hard to tell if they are all consistent, but generally the publisher or author will use the spelling conventions of the publisher's or author's country unless quoting directly from a text.

How do we deal with other aspects of a dialect or accent (e.g. preserving someone's g-droppin', etc.)? The answer is, as per some style guides such as the MLA Handbook:

Obvious typographic errors may be corrected silently (without comment or sic; see 13.59), unless the passage quoted is from an older work or a manuscript source where idiosyncrasies of spelling are generally preserved. If spelling and punctuation are modernized or altered for clarity, readers must be so informed in a note, in a preface, or elsewhere.

Note that this describes "typographic errors". However, the quoted speech you describe is transcribed at some point. If you choose to preserve someone's speech verbatim, then you will wind up capturing typographic and grammatical "errors". Therefore, you could apply this guideline.

When quoting a speaker, if she said, "I ain't got nofin' to cook wif," then I could use [sic] or an alternative. It's often suggested, as in this ELU question that "quiet editing" take place, so you would write "I have nothing to cook with" or "I ain't got nothing to cook with" depending on how you want to portray the speaker.

In short, go with your gut instinct.

  • Must have been a lot of work to dig up those quotes. +1
    – JAM
    Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 17:35
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    The initial two quotes are backwards in that the American is quoted saying realise, the British form, while the Briton is quoted saying “realize”, the American form. Commented Dec 31, 2012 at 7:27
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    @jwpat7 the point is that "realise" appears in the quote in a British publication (BBC) while "realize" appears in the quote in a US publication (NYT). In other words, each publication uses its own local conventions, regardless of the nationality of the speaker. Commented Aug 8, 2016 at 14:31
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    @MaxWilliams, yes, that is basically what I meant by the emphasized phrase ("generally the publisher or author will use the spelling conventions of the publisher's or author's country"). Commented Aug 14, 2016 at 1:25
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    @jwpat when you said "backwards", i thought you meant that they were incorrect, eg the wrong way round - but if you actually mean "counter to expectations" then I've misunderstood your point and agree. Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 7:35

In my humble opinion, if you change a written quote, it's not a quote any more.

I think of it this way: There are lots of differences in English dialects besides spelling, like vocabulary and sometimes grammar. Suppose a Briton said, "I took the underground to my barrister's office." I don't think it would be legitimate to quote him as saying, "I took the subway to my lawyer's office." That's just ... not what he said. If you can't change the vocabulary, I think by extension you can't change the spelling either. That's why people put "[sic]" or explanatory notes in quotes: So they can give an accurate quote while at the same time helping the reader to understand what was meant.

If you're quoting spoken words, that's a little trickier. Verbal quotes are often not verbatim: we drop out the "ums", fix obvious grammar errors, etc. I can see an argument either way: If you use the spelling of the speaker's dialect, it could look like an affectation, but if you use the spelling of your own, it could look out of place.

If you're making an indirect qoute, like, "Smythe told me that he took the subway to his lawyer's office", that's different. Now you're not claiming to quote his exact words anymore, but rather you are paraphrasing what he said in your own words. My own words use my own spelling. Also, a fair amount of liberty is allowed in "editing" such a quote.


To begin with, in British English both realize and realise are accepted and understood.

As for the question, I've never heard of a convention other than the one you mention: when you quote something written you maintain the spelling the author has used. If you quote something spoken, you can use the spelling rules you are more familiar with and which your readers will understand better.

  • Interesting. I wasn't aware of that, since "realise" so heavily predominates: "in 21st-century British news publications...realise is about ten times as common as realize.". I suppose I would never have noticed "realize" if I'd seen it in British writing since it doesn't stand out to me at all, but "realise" does.
    – iconoclast
    Commented Oct 30, 2012 at 14:47
  • @iconoclast: What you say is even more "interesting", in that you seem to imply Brits might not actually recognise words if they used American spelling. And vice-versa, but I assume you do in fact realise I'm talking about the words you know as recognize and realize. Commented Oct 30, 2012 at 15:06
  • I'm sure an American could figure out what "realise" means, even if he didn't know that that was a common mis-spelling of "realize" among British people. :-) I wonder if there are examples where a spelling is so different than someone might not recognize the word. I can't think of an example off the top of my head, but ... Of course there are many differences in vocabulary that could be puzzling, especially when the word exists in another dialect but with a different meaning. I was recently on another forum where there was some confusion over "battery" versus "accumulator".
    – Jay
    Commented Oct 30, 2012 at 15:26
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    @Jay: "spelling is so different..." Back in the Dark Ages when I was a wee lad, I read some British novel or other, and did not realize that gaol is merely an alternate spelling of jail.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Oct 30, 2012 at 16:46
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    @GEdgar Good example! I remember for the longest time reading that and pronouncing it in my head as "gay-all". Also, once a British transplant to the US ran for county commissioner or some such. His opponent was a former policeman. In a debate the policeman talked about how the county needed to "set goals". The Brit replied, "What does he know about goals? His expertise is in gaols, not goals." Which to a Brit was a clever play on words, but to the American audience was an "um, ok".
    – Jay
    Commented Oct 30, 2012 at 18:28

To add another semi-official viewpoint, the Chicago Manual of Style FAQ have an entry on this, discouraging tampering with the text you're quoting:

Although it’s common to do this in the main text of a manuscript that has crossed the pond, I wouldn’t do it within quotations, partly out of respect for the original and partly because if I failed to catch every last Britishism, I would render the quotation inconsistent and violate my primary rule of copyediting: First, do no harm. If you decide to change the spellings, you could note somewhere that quotations have been edited for spelling and punctuation. For a list of permissible changes to quotations, please see CMOS 13.7.


At ordinary state schools in the UK in the 1960s I was taught to write "realize", "organize", etc. along with the subtle difference between "ize", signifying a process, and "ise" for words taken directly from French (eg "surprise", "reprise"). European English doesn't recognize "ize" as correct in any circumstances and many British editors abandoned it in the 1980s and 90s. However, both are "correct" in British English, insofar as they are given as correct in respected dictionaries.

On the quote thing, a written quote should be quoted as originally written, speech as the transcriber chooses, or according to the demands of house style, depending on context.

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