Paying one’s dues


A frequent question concerns the correct use of ‘owing to’ and ‘due to’. Both phrases originate in the world of finance and moneylending; and of course the word ‘due’ still has the sense of ‘money owed’ in expressions such as ‘rent due’, ‘due by 14 March’ or ‘to pay your dues’.

A later, more general meaning of ‘due’ is of something well-deserved (‘with all due respect’, ‘credit where it’s due’). More loosely, it comes to refer to anything that can be simply attributed to something or someone. ‘Death was due to heart failure’, for example. As a result, ‘due to’ and ‘owing to’ have become practically synonymous with ‘because of’, and are frequently used in its place:

  1. Due to the rain, the president did not attend the ceremony’
  2. Owing to the rain, the president did not attend the ceremony.’

Now, most editors agree that both of the above sentences are grammatically correct. But some purists insist that ‘due’ should not be used prepositionally, as in sentence 1, but should always be attached to a verb:

3. ‘The president’s absence was due to the rain’
4. ‘It was due to the rain that the president did not attend the ceremony.’

Equally, although ‘owing to’ works fine as an introductory prepositional phrase in sentence 2,  it would look pretty strange in sentence 3: (‘The president’s absence was owing to the rain’).

So the sensible solution seems to be to use ‘Owing to’ for introductory prepositional phrases. Elsewhere in the sentence, use ‘owing to’ or ‘is/was due to’, depending on construction.

The ‘-ize’ have it

Many British English speakers disapprove of spellings such as ‘criticize’ or ‘modernize’, as if the letter ‘z’ were some devilish American plot designed to ruin ‘traditional’ English spelling forever.

Yet if these same diehards were to pick up a novel by, say, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy or George Eliot, they might be surprised at the sheer number of words spelt in this way: ‘apologize’, ‘organize’, ‘recognize’, ‘sympathize’, ‘utilize’; the list goes on.

In fact, in the literature of the 19th century this spelling is far more common than the alternative ‘-ise’ which many English children are still taught at school today.

The spelling with ‘z’ is preferred by the vast majority of British authors and editors from the eighteenth century to the present. It derives originally from the ‘-ize’ ending of Greek words such as ‘ostracize’ and ‘baptize’. And to this day the Oxford English Dictionary gives ‘-ize’ as the preferred spelling, and lists ‘-ise’ as a variant.

Of course there are always detractors who insist on using the French-derived ‘-ise’ for all verbs, irrespective of the words’ origins. Among their number are Emily and Charlotte Bronte (but not sister Anne), and the Times newspaper (which changed from ‘-ize’ to ‘-ise’ as recently as 1992).

As you might expect, there are exceptions to everything that I have written above. These include verbs whose Latin stem ends with ‘-vise’ (‘advise’, ‘devise’, ‘supervise’), ‘-prise’ (‘surprise’, ‘comprise’, ‘reprise’), ‘-cise’ (‘exercise’, ‘circumcise’) or ‘mise’ (‘promise’, ‘compromise’, ‘surmise’). All should be spelt with ‘s’, as should ‘analyse’ and ‘catalyse’, both of which share the Greek stem ‘-lys-‘, from the verb ‘luo’, to loosen or untie.

Some exceptions to the rule: