Gray or Grey?

What Is the Difference between "Gray" and "Grey"?

The Quick Answer
"Gray" and "grey" are used in the US and UK, but, to play it safe, do the following:
  • If you're following US writing conventions, write "gray."
  • If you're following UK writing conventions, write "grey."
grey or gray?

More about "Gray" and "Grey"

The color/colour between black and white can be written "gray" or "grey." In the US, "gray" is far more popular than "grey," and this has been the case since at least the early 19th century. As a result, many Americans consider "grey" to be a spelling mistake. Outside the US, "grey" (which has been around for nearly 1,300 years) still dominates.

A Grammatical Look at Gray/Grey

The word "gray/grey" can be used as a noun, an adjective, or a verb. For example:
  • Noun: This shade of gray is almost white.
  • Adjective: I like the gray doors.
  • Verb: The clouds gray as they get heavier.
The guidance on spelling does not change when a different part of speech is used. In other words, those following British conventions would to okay to use "grey" in the examples above.

Why Two Different Spellings?

Both "gray" and "grey" derive from the English word "grǽg," which included the letter ǽ. This letter, which is no longer used, is known as an "ash" (or sometimes an "æsc"). It represented a diphthong (a sliding vowel).

As you can see, an "ash" is formed by joining the letters "a" and "e," and this the root the spelling issue. As the letter "ash" disappeared from our language, most replaced it with just "e," but some replaced it with just "a." By the eighteenth century, "grey" was the more common spelling, despite the efforts of English dictionaries to adhere to famous lexicographer Samuel Johnson's preferred spelling "gray." In the UK, "grey" is still preferred, but in the US, "gray" is far more popular.

Today, there is leniency with the spelling, but Americans prefer "gray," and the British prefer "grey." Of interest, "grey" is still an accepted variant in the US (evidence from the US corpus), and "gray" is becoming increasingly popular outside the US.

To ensure you don't annoy your readers, stick the following:
  • "gray" correct tick small American flag
  • "grey" correct tick small British flag

When Spelling Matters

Most of the time, the spelling guidance above is fine. For example, writers are safe to follow their local convention with terms like the following:
  • gray/grey whale
  • gray/grey matter
  • gray/grey squirrel
However, there are some terms that demand a specific spelling, and these must be remembered. For example:
  • Earl Grey tea
  • greyhound (breed of dog)
  • Grey Poupon mustard
  • Grey Goose vodka
  • Grey's Anatomy (a TV drama)
  • "Fifty Shades of Grey" (an erotic novel E. L. James)
  • grayling (type of game fish)
  • gray (a unit of radiation dose, abbreviated Gy)

The Differences between British English and American English

Watch a video showing 10 big differences between British English (BrE) and American English (AmE). video lesson

Are you a visual learner? Do you prefer video to text? Here is a list of all our grammar videos.

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.