Observe conservative insurgencies

lookrightThe word observe is a bit odd, because the s is pronounced as a /z/:

  we can observe


  began to observe


  who observe some form of the fourth commandment


  observe a set of rules

Serve can be pronounced with /z/ when a vowel precedes, in reserve, deserve and preserve. But at the start of a word or when a consonant precedes, we generally get /s/:

serve, service, serving, servant, servile
conserve, conservative, conservation
subservient, subservience
manservant, maidservant

For example, con/s/ervative:

  that is what the next Conservative government will do


  many of them are deeply conservative


  if they are politically conservative

So ob/z/erve is the odd one out (along with ob/z/ervation, ob/z/ervant, ob/z/ervatory, etc.)

Like ser-, sur- is also generally pronounced with /s/, as in insurgency:

  an anti-two-party insurgency


  the insurgency against the British

And also absurd:

  it’s an absurd idea


  this is absurd

But just as ser- has a /z/ when preceded by a vowel in reserve, deserve and preserve, sur- likewise has /z/ when preceded by a vowel in usurp (which refers to the taking of some kind of power without proper authority):

  he was known to usurp the role of his brigadiers

At least that’s the traditional British pronunciation. From Americans, and many Brits today, you can hear usurp pronounced with /s/:

  it does not usurp people’s ability to have strict standards

(There are some people who pronounce absurd with /z/; but I think the clips above represent the most common pronunciations.)