Two Shades of Gray

03 Dec

This week, my imagination takes me to…no, not that! I’m addressing American vs. English spellings and pronunciations.  The writer of the blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey is English and therefore, grey is spelled with an “e” rather than the American version, which is spelled with an “a.” Both spellings are in an American dictionary so it’s not like you’ll be called out about it. I thought about this because my sister e-mailed asking which was the correct spelling.

This blog is not about a right or wrong way. It’s a compilation of words that point out how the same language, English, used by different countries, is not exactly the same. In all examples, the American usage comes first.

-or and –our: honor/honour and favorite/favourite. We dropped the “u” in most cases.

-er and -re: caliber/calibre and theater/theatre. Interesting to note that most of these examples came from French, Latin, and Greek word endings. And yes, we do have people in the United States who are in “theatre.” Whether it’s affectation or not is another blog. 🙂

Also interesting is that the English did change some of the -re endings in months like November and December and words like chapter and tender. Why? I haven’t a clue. Does anyone out there know why?

But, American English also kept some traditional spellings in the words acre, massacre, mediocre to show that the “c” is pronounced /k/ rather than /s/.

-ice and -ise: advice/advise and device/devise. In America, we use the spelling of “advise” and “devise” when used as a verb. Advice is a word I often see misspelled when I’m proofing papers and mss.

Another exception is that the English, while using defence and offence, change the “c” to “s” in the words defensive and offensive. Hmm.

-ize and –ise: organize/organise and realize/realise although I read that the English now use both spellings.

Hope you enjoyed this short piece about the wonderful variants of the language we share with our friends across the pond.


Posted by on December 3, 2012 in Etymology, writing


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20 responses to “Two Shades of Gray

  1. Judith Keim

    December 3, 2012 at 4:47 AM

    Great blog. I feel sorry for anyone who must learn English as a second language. So confusing!!

    • Janis

      December 3, 2012 at 6:37 AM

      Amen. If the variants confused native speakers, think about ESL-ers.

  2. lizkflaherty

    December 3, 2012 at 6:10 AM

    This is so interesting. I hate to admit that I never get theater right–I thought it was -er for the building and -re for the art, like being “in theatre”. I also screw up blond and blonde with great regularity–is that an English / American thing or a completely different issue?

    • Janis

      December 3, 2012 at 6:38 AM

      I’ve always used gender to determine spelling of blond/blonde, which is kind of French, I guess. I’ll look it up.

      • Janis McCurry

        December 3, 2012 at 7:16 AM

        Liz, the online dictionary I use said this: “usage: Although blond and blonde correspond to masculine and feminine forms in French, this distinction is not consistently made in English. Blonde is the commoner form both as a noun and an adjective, and is more frequently used to refer to women than men. The less common variant blond occurs usually as an adjective, occasionally as a noun, and is the preferred form when referring to men with fair hair”

        • lizkflaherty

          December 3, 2012 at 7:23 AM

          Thanks, Janis. I should have looked it up myself–though I’d have forgotten it anyway!

        • ValRoberts

          December 3, 2012 at 8:04 AM

          This is something that comes up a lot with documentation that needs to be used in multiple locations around the world. The software company I work for during the day has Canadian customers who can cope with American English, but need everything in Canadian French as well (and yes, Canadian French is considered a separate dialect from French).

          We also just signed a contract to operate in Bermuda, where they use UK spelling variants — someone had to go through and mark every place in the software where “color” and “flavor” appear, so we can be sure “colour” and “flavour” are substituted appropriately.

          • Janis McCurry

            December 3, 2012 at 8:39 AM

            Val, I think that’s cool. It’s an international world and we need to recognize it.

  3. Jennifer

    December 3, 2012 at 9:42 AM

    Very interesting. I always try to spell it “theatre” and I can never figure out where I got that from. Now at least I know I’m not going crazy as it actually is spelled that way somewhere…

  4. Janis McCurry

    December 3, 2012 at 9:51 AM

    It’s a bit like it’s always cocktail hour somewhere! Our family is fond of that one.

  5. stephanieberget

    December 3, 2012 at 10:11 AM

    Thanks for answering Liz’s question about blond/blonde. I always confuse those. Great blog.

  6. Janis McCurry

    December 3, 2012 at 10:28 AM

    Thanks, Steph!

  7. Peggy Staggs

    December 3, 2012 at 11:07 AM

    It isn’t only an English problem. When I lived on Okinawa the word nason (probably misspelled) meant young girl (Okinawan is a version of Japanese much like English and American.) Unfortunately, in Japan it referred to a lady of the evening. An error, if made, that could get you in a lot of trouble.

  8. Janis McCurry

    December 3, 2012 at 11:12 AM

    Oh, no. That would indeed be awkward.

  9. Lynn Mapp

    December 3, 2012 at 6:23 PM

    When my students ask “why” we do something, I like to say, “I wasn’t there, so I wasn’t asked how I felt about these decisions.”

  10. Janis McCurry

    December 4, 2012 at 7:18 AM

    I know how you feel.

  11. marsharwest

    December 4, 2012 at 11:58 AM

    As an old “theatre” person myself, I’ve always spelled the place where you see live plays and musicals with the “re.” (My proper college professor would come out of her grave and get me if I didn’t.) LOL The “er” form of the word is saved for place to see motion pictures. (Odd to use that phrase. I usually just say “movies.” 🙂 Always an interesting post, Janis.

  12. Janis McCurry

    December 4, 2012 at 12:04 PM

    The term has fallen into disuse and most people (including me) just say movies. Theater/re might become obsolete as many words do. That’s an interesting subject. Words that have disappeared.

  13. maryvine

    December 4, 2012 at 6:38 PM

    THanks for the education, Janis. You never let me down.

  14. Janis McCurry

    December 5, 2012 at 9:04 AM

    Glad to hear you liked it, Mary.


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