shades of grey and gray

Calm your fluttering little hearts, I’m not about to go into a discussion about that smutty little novel-turned-film. No, instead I’m going to talk about spelling and one particularly annoying variant between British English and American English: the difference between grey and gray.

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Yang Yongliang (杨泳梁), From the New World (来自新大陆) (detail), 2014

If you check the dictionary, it’ll probably list ‘grey’ as chiefly British and ‘gray’ as chiefly American. So … what of those who use both? I am a proud American English user and use the American spellings of color (v. colour), organization (v. organisation), traveled (v. travelled), inquiry (v. the inquiry/enquiry divide), and meter (v. metre). Oh, and the last letter of the alphabet? That’s a ‘zee’, not ‘zed’.

But ya know what? I use both ‘grey’ and ‘gray’. I also use both ‘theatre’ and ‘theater’ – although for different things. The stage ends in ‘-re’ and cinema is ‘-er’ – a distinction that I’m not alone in making. Yet when I use both ‘grey’ and ‘gray’, drawing a difference between ‘gray’ for a warmer hue and ‘grey’ for a cooler/lighter/steelier/bluer variant, suddenly I’m a complete weirdo. Am I? Really now? I checked on the web and there are others who think like me. Then again, on the internet you’re bound to find someone who agrees with you.

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Pang Yun (庞云), Portrait of Trees No. 3 (树的肖像3) (detail), 2014

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Li Jinghu (李景湖), Sea Breeze (海风) (detail), 2009

In general, I use the spelling ‘gray’ to describe the colors on a ‘grayscale’. I fully realize that I am in the minority with my double usage of theatre/theater and that I am practically alone on a deserted island for grey/gray, so as a rule, if I’m writing something official or for publication (peer-reviewed, academic, in print, or must conform to CMOS), then I only use ‘gray’ and ‘theater’ for the sake of consistency and not confusing everyone with my non-standard spelling distinctions. But I guess this duality is what happens when you study so much (British) English that both end up feeling quite natural. Although serial commas are a must.

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