Gray or Gray? What to choose?

Gray or Grey - Are Both Correct?

The difference between Gray and Gray

When learning the English language, we often encounter words that have the same meaning but are spelled differently. This can lead to confusion, especially when these variations result from the differences between British English and American English. One such example is “grey” and “gray.” If someone thought it was a spelling mistake for one of the words, that’s not the case. Both words are correct and have the same meaning. The main distinction between “grey” (with an “e“) and “gray” (with an “a“) lies in the form of English in which they are used. “Grey” is more commonly used in British English, while “gray” is prevalent in American English. Let’s take a moment to clarify the usage of these words in the English language once and for all.

“Grey” – used in British English

In British English, the colour that is a mix of black and white is spelled ‘grey‘ with an ‘e‘. This is the standard spelling that you will come across in the UK and other countries that follow British English norms, such as Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand. You would find ‘grey’ used in major British publications, government documents, and educational materials. Here’s ‘grey’ in a British context:

  • “The London sky is often covered with grey clouds.”
  • “She wore a stylish grey dress to the interview.”

“Gray” – used in in American English

In American English, the same color is spelled “gray” through the “a“. This spelling is used throughout the United States and is standardized in American publications, including newspapers, books, and any media that adheres to the conventions of American English. Consider examples of the use of “gray” in the American context:

  • “His hair turned gray after his children left for college.”
  • “The artist preferred a palette of blue, white, and gray.”

History of the words “Gray” and “Grey”

The common origin of these words dates back to Old English, and for centuries, these two forms alternated priority between each other. It is known that until the 18th century, the usage of “grey” was more prevalent in scientific and literary works. However, scholar and lexicographer Samuel Johnson expressed the opinion that the more correct form is “gray.”

In the 19th century, the preference seemed to shift towards “gray,” especially in the United States, where this form became more popular due to research conducted with various dictionaries. However, by the 20th century, “grey” regained popularity, while “gray” persisted in the American variant of English.

How to remember the difference between “gray” and “grey”

A handy tip for remembering which spelling to use is based on the key vowels ‘e’ and ‘a’:

  • ‘E’ for England: Use ‘grey’ when writing for a British audience.
  • ‘A’ for America: Use ‘gray’ when addressing an American audience.

Exceptions  where the words “gray” and “grey” are not interchangeable

There are times when substituting one word for another, even if it looks similar in meaning, can cause confusion or be incorrect. Most often this is related to idioms, technical definitions or terms or names. Here are some examples:

  1. Greyhound vs. Grayhound:
    • Meaning: A graphical error or accidental substitution may result in “grayhound,” but the correct and accepted term is “greyhound,” referring to a breed of dog or a bus.
  2. Grey matter vs. Gray matter:
    • Meaning: “Grey matter” refers to brain cells, while “gray matter” might cause confusion as it is a term used to describe the color region in brain anatomy.
  3. Grey market vs. Gray market:
    • Meaning: “Grey market” is used to describe goods sold officially but outside official distribution channels. “Gray market” can be misleading as it is not a standard term in this context.
  4. The Grey vs. The Gray:
    • Meaning: If referring to a film or book titled “The Grey,” substituting with “The Gray” would be incorrect, as it is a specific title for a particular work.

In most cases, the choice between “grey” and “gray” largely depends on your audience. If you are writing for British readers or adhering to the standards of British English, “grey” is your choice. If your audience is American, or you are following the conventions of American English, then “gray” is the correct form. Both spelling variants are correct in their respective regions, and English speakers, in general, will understand your meaning regardless of the spelling you use.

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