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Ambiance vs. ambience

Ambience and ambiance are different spellings of the same word, referring to the special atmosphere or mood of a particular environment. While some dictionaries list ambiance as the standard spelling, ambience is far more common in all main 21st-century varieties of English. It’s worth noting, though, that ambiance tends to take precedence in contexts relating to art and design, but this is by no means a rule, and exceptions abound.

Ambiance is the French word from which the English one derives, and ambience is an Anglicization. But in fact, the Anglicized word has been in English longer and was established long before the French spelling entered English as a vogue word in the 20th century. So the fact that ambience is more common makes sense, as it has been an English word longer.

Examples

Although British English, compared to American English, is usually more welcoming to French words and spellings, most British publications prefer the non-French spelling of ambience, as used in these examples:


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The relaxed ambience could also be down to the absence of mobile technology at our table. [Guardian]

Jasper itself is also very popular for skiing, although Jasper Park Lodge doesn’t have the ambience or cachet of the hotels above. [Telegraph]

Canadian, Australian, and American publications also tend to prefer ambience over ambiance:

Parallel lines are encouraged to reflect the nautical ambience. [Montreal Gazette]

In Midtown and Lower Manhattan, we had experienced the ambience and uber-cool of the village life that so attracts people to this unique island. [Herald Sun]

Evidently, too many coffee shops in town have had their ambience wrecked when itinerant word processors with laptops turn the tables into office space. [New York Times]

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Comments

  1. Thanks!

  2. silvermurpher says:

    I was looking into this for professional purposes…and this entry is fine, and surely accurate. But I’d raise one issue, based on verbal usage. It seems to me that people always pronounce it as “ambi-ONce” (as if spelled with an “a”) versus “ambi-ENce”, suggesting the “e” spelling. So I don’t understand why the favored spelling shouldn’t fit with the favored pronunciation, unless I’m wrong about that.

  3. I just wanted to say that I was pleasantly surprised to find that both are acceptable.

    In my experiences, I mostly hear “ambient” when referring to background sounds as in “ambient noise” (pronounced with the short e) and I immediately make the association with the spelling, “ambient.” When I hear the other pronunciation (pronounced with the short o sound, ahm-bee-ahnce), it’s usually referred to the atmosphere or feeling you get from the environment and surroundings, and the way that it sounds immediately brings the spelling, “ambiance” to mind.

  4. four_strings says:

    Similar to Law’s distinction, I see a divergence in use, with “ambience” used to describe naturally occurring or unintended conditions such as noise, temperature, or other physical elements of an environment, while “ambiance” is more often used to describe design elements intended to create a mood or feel to an environment.

    • Ernie S. Leon-Guerrero says:

      To four_strings: do you find the root word “ambient” to have multiple meanings similar to your meanings for “ambiance”? I find it uncommon to affect a French pronunciation for words the way we do with “ambiance”, so I can’t think of a precedence or rule to compare it to. I find the French-like pronunciation somewhat affected, but I don’t see any difference in the two pronunciations meanings. I think that the French-like pronunciation is going to become the norm, though.

      • four_strings says:

        I work in live sound and recording studios. Engineers nearly always use “ambience” (ents) when referring to room noise, and never ambiance (aunts). It is often considered an obstacle to good recording, but sometimes incorporated as an effect, as in natural room reverb, because it is there and nothing can be done about it.
        However, I almost always hear the latter pronunciation in reference to architecture, restaurant décor, or other aesthetic matters. I don’t view the meanings as different, only the application and connotations. One is more clinical and describes naturally occurring or unintended phenomena, the other more aesthetic or referring to intentional or desired conditions that enhance an experience. The distinction is subtle and there is certainly some overlap, but you will seldom hear the French pronunciation in the laboratory. It has found favor in high culture, where the French pronunciations are employed at every opportunity, so you will hear your interior decorator use it more often.
        I don’t see a trend towards either pronunciation, other than a continuing divergence in its application

        • Ernie S. Leon-Guerrero says:

          I get what you’re saying. I don’t know about this from any personal research or anything, but according to this site, the French spelling in English is new, so I imagine the pronunciation came with it, so I take that as meaning it’s more common in usage than before. I feel like it makes sense that you hear the anglicization when dealing with music since you use the root adjective form a lot when dealing with music, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard “ambient” pronounced with an affected French pronunciation. Though I don’t think I’d ever pronounce “ambience” in the anglicized manner. I really can’t recall ever hearing it.

          • four_strings says:

            I think the spelling may have followed the pronunciation. As the French pronunciation gained favor in some circles, the “a” spelling saw more use. There may be regional as well as professional preferences. When I was in school many years ago, we were taught the anglicized spelling and pronunciation. When I heard the French pronunciation come into use, it seemed a bit pretentious at first. But I soon saw a pattern of its use in reference to aesthetics and design intent as opposed to natural surroundings, I accepted the distinction to imply a desired effect as opposed to an arbitrary condition.

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