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Theater vs. theatre

In most contexts, there is no difference in meaning between theater and theatre. Neither has any special definitions in general usage. The main thing that most English speakers and learners need to know is that theater is the preferred spelling in American English, and theatre is preferred virtually everywhere else.

Some Americans do make distinctions—for instance, that a theater is a venue while theatre is an art form, or that a theater is a movie theater while a theatre is a drama venue. There is nothing wrong with making these distinctions, but they are not consistently borne out in general usage. Even in 21st-century writing on the art of theater, the more American spelling now appears for all senses of the word.

The American preference for theater is a late-20th-century development (though the spelling itself is a centuries-old variant), so it is understandable that some people still resist it, and its newness means that exceptions are very easily found, but in this century the preference is entrenched. Searching a selection of 40 American news and cultural publications that put their content online, theaters appears 8,500 times from 2000 to the present, against just under 200 instances of theatres. This just suggests that theater is the preferred spelling for actual venues (the art form is a mass noun so would only rarely be pluralized), which no one seems to dispute. What’s more interesting is that the phrase theater critic appears 260 times against three instances of theatre critic, theater actor appears 43 times against zero instances of theatre actortheater scene appears 60 times against two instances of theatre scene, and the phrase contemporary theater appears 27 times against two instances of contemporary theatre (and both of these are in names of buildings).

Meanwhile, ngrams meant to draw out any preference for theatre as the spelling for the art form in U.S. books shows theater ahead even in these uses over the last few decades (the links in this sentence point to some of the ngrams).

Examples

U.S.


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He rails against naturalistic theater as trite and trivial. [Marin Independent-Journal]

First, historians of theater and drama have described an increasingly out professional class of theater practitioners.  [Cast Out: Queer Lives in Theater, Robin Bernstein]

The theater scene is buzzing this week, with a head-spinning array of recommended shows running on local stages. [Buffalo News]

Similarly, the field of theater studies to date has largely ignored her dramatic output. [Mama Dada: Gertrude Stein’s Theater, Sarah Bay-Cheng]

Outside the U.S.

Perhaps it’s forehead-slappingly obvious to say so, but theatre struggles to do likewise. [Guardian]

In the spring of 1968 Ruben moved to Canada with the intention of serving as the Toronto Star‘s backup theatre critic. [Establishing our Boundaries: English-Canadian Theatre Criticism, Anton Wagner]

Budding theatre stars in Chester are invited to take part in a number of classic West End themed workshops. [Chester First (link now dead)]

She … applauds parents for taking their children to the theatre when there are so many other entertainment options. [Herald Sun]

Theatre in U.S. building names

Theatre often appears in the proper names of American theaters—for example, the American Ballet Theatre, the Muncie Civic Theatre, and the Genessee Theatre. When referring to one of these establishments by the common noun, theater is the usual spelling (in the U.S.)—for example:

Denver loses another theater space when the Vintage Theatre is bounced from its home at 17th Avenue and Vine Street. [Denver Post]

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Comments

  1. Keith Stone says:

    “Theatre” is where thespians work their trade.

    “Theater” is where soldiers work their trade, as in “The Iraqi theater..”, or “…soldiers arrived in theater today…”.

  2. Stranger440 says:

    So whats the conclusion???

  3. Sir Richard Steele says:

    Theater is a building in which theatre is performed.
    So now there IS a rule. I just made it.

  4. Mr. Bojangles says:

    Theatre is performed on the West End whilst theater is performed on Broadway.

  5. It’s actually the other way around (theatre is either the building or company, theater is the art form.) It is this way with every venue and organization I’ve performed with.

  6. “Theatre” in American English is just plain pretencious.

    • *pretentious

    • Ghostrider939 says:

      plain and pretentious can be construed as opposites (like gaudy and austere), and since ‘theatre’ has been around at least 300 years longer than the United States, what is pretentious and what is just plain arrogant ???

      • MrsPoppins says:

        Still angry with the upstart, are you?

      • Jason Epperson says:

        Because American English has adopted the “ER” ending for not only this word but every word that ends in “RE” For the Brits. When you use “re” you technically aren’t wrong, but to me you sound like one of those strip malls that calls themselves a “centre” or a corner liquor store that calls themselves a “shoppe”. You’re trying to make something more important than it is.

    • J. C. Smith says:

      My opinion as well. The “movie house” in my city calls itself a “theatre”, which is pretty pompous for a place showing a Sponge Bob movie every night. There’s nothing wrong with the -re ending, it just isn’t how we spell it here.

  7. The Mother Slayer says:

    Well the way I learned it was “theater” was the building or company and “theatre” was the art.. I’m surprised there is any discrepancy at all, guess there really isn’t a concrete rule

    • Ghostrider939 says:

      In the English speaking world, as opposed to the American speaking world the building is a theatre.

      • appropriate_boy says:

        Regardless of how one uses theater or theatre, Americans speak English. It is called Standard American English, and it is the world’s shared language (the one taught in other countries to citizens learning English as an additional language to their native tongue). It has displaced French and the Queen’s English as the world’s shared language. Therefore, the American speaking world is part of the English speaking world, and most of the world speaking English is speaking American Standard English.

        • Oh no you are so wrong,most people in the world speak the British version I am afraid.

          • appropriate_boy says:

            That was then. This is now. The international schools and national/private schools of many countries have been teaching American Standard English as their second language for more than 25 years. It might have been foolish on their part, thinking the USA would always be the center of international happenings, but that’s been the thinking. It might not seem like it to individuals, but the research and the linguists verify that American Standard English displaced the Queen’s English as the world standard some time back.

          • Hétiro says:

            Where I study (Spain) we don’t learn American English, we learn British English, and for what I know it is like that in at least Portugal and Italy.

          • Europe is only one small part of the planet.

          • Dude every European in public schools or gymnasiums learns British English in school not American Standard English. (atleast in Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria and Italy)

          • Europe is only one small part of the planet. By the way, our friends from France send their children to the United States for school in order to ensure they speak American Standard English well and understand the culture. They believe it makes their children more employable.

          • MrsPoppins says:

            That just isn’t true.

            You really believe current Swiss and German children are being taught the Queen’s English as their second language? Look at which countries are kicking everyone’s else’s tails when it comes to their economies and then go look at what they are officially teaching, and have a conversation in English with any successful business person or even current student from Switzerland and Germany.

            You can add Norway, Holland, (the Nordic countries in general) and France to the list. Even the Italians, despite their perpetual, never-ending government stability problems and bad economy. Also add Japan and China. We even had Slovakian students stay with us, and friends of ours are doing volunteer teaching in Macedonian schools. Students, both young adults from Slovakia and elementary and middle school students from Macedonia are working hard on their Standard American English and rightfully proud of their accomplishments, regardless of the language they chose to learn and improve upon. I sure can’t speak their languages!

          • Someone had better tell the Japanese then. None of the 5 school English depts. I taught in during the past 15 years were aware that they were officially supposed to be teaching “American Standard English” rather than international English. (Or “wrong English” if you want to say “international” is now synonymous with (US) American. My hunch is you could do a poll of schools and education bureaucrats in other countries on your list and most of them would be equally uninformed of your assumptions regarding their standards.)

          • wordtoyourmother says:

            International English is Standard American English. Apparently you didn’t know what you were teaching.

          • Aah Yes says:

            No, just because some schools outside the US teach American English doesn’t make it “International English”. They still call it what it is, “American English”. Apparently you didn’t know what you were pontificating about.

          • MrsPoppins says:

            International, American standard, one and the same. If you don’t know that, then I question your level of knowledge given your claimed profession.

          • wordtoyourmother says:

            Not true.

          • Yes, English came from England. There is one more English called American English , that’s it.

          • MrsPoppins says:

            The elders yes, left over from the days the English colonized most of the world. However, contemporarily, their children and grandchildren are learning Standard American English. Because some are not, and some countries do not have the same high levels of education that other countries do so their children are merely learning what their parents and grandparents did, does not mean that most countries, or parents in those places government won’t, are not ensuring their descendents are learning it as an investment in their futures.

            My guess is that it was the popularity of American entertainment and the rise of computer technology since the 1980s that fueled the switch. I am astounded by the people I meet from all over the planet who not only speak English, Standard American English, but also understand and speak informal American English fluently. Even our colloquial expressions! It’s pretty impressive.

            My question is, 30 years from now, what will be the world’s shared language? There is no guarantee it will be American English or any form of English at all, especially since history shows us it will change at some point as social evolution around the globe advances.

          • It’s funny hearing “English” referred to as “British English”. It should just be “English” and every other version of it: American English, Australian English,…etc. Likewise, I think it’s redundant when Americans are referred to as “Native Americans”.

        • I don’t always fight on the internet, but when I do, it’s over word usage.

        • Canada doesn’t speak American Standard English.

          We learn Canadian English, which is a bastardization of British English.

          Colour, Favourite, Metre, Theatre,

          In fact writing “Theater” just looks wrong.

          • Is there a dialect that is formally recognized by linguists called Canadian English? “Canadian English” is not taught internationally as the common English. It used to French, then the Queen’s English, and eventually the majority of countries switched to American Standard English.

          • Canadian English is recognized by Oxford University as a National level of English, on par with Australian English or New Zealand English.

            It’s also very discernible from American English (To Canadians at least, we can hear the different inflections other nationals like British or New Zealand might miss)

            I speak a form of British English myself known as Newfoundland English. It’s a unique form of British English from a mix of Scottish Gaelic, English, Irish and French words. We have our own dictionary for it. Examples to show the difference would be that Fear and Fair are homophones. “It is” is usually replaced with “‘Tis” (What’s the time? Tis 6:00, 5:30 in Labrador) We use “Me” instead of “my” generally (“where’s me keys to?” or “Where’s me hat at?”) H’s are not usually pronounced in words beginning with H-vowel (House sounds like Ouse) and we add H to words with no H, as a result, (I ate and I hate are also homophones).
            We also have the curious trait of pluralizing verbs (I eats I drinks I smokes).

            We’re taught accepted Canadian English in school, but outside of School we speak so quickly and with such an accent most Canadian mainlanders can’t understand what tis we’re saying. We can write with proper English conventions and grammar though, unless we’re trying to get a Newfie inflection across

          • shellback says:

            Ghetto people always make up their own language to fool the honest folk in town. The cops make lists of these words to identify perpetrators. I suspect that is the drivel you are spewing. Theatre is dyslexic in the end. My computer just corrected my spelling on theater. Phhst.

          • A small area, or even a southern drawl isn’t quite what we have here.

            It’s a legitimate language. Formed on an independent island in isolation from the rest of North America for over 300 years with french and Irish additions. You won’t hear words like Sleveen or Streal, or barasway (barrachois), a tickle, a neck, duckish. Not simple slang, although when we toss around the specific words and the slang with addition to the accent and dialect we’re nar bit understandable.

          • Ok. Let me relate to you some stanzas of an old poem written in Newfoundland English. I’ve got the print version in front of me. It doesn even look English I find it looks closer to Dutch.

            “h’Uncle Jack Rowser was proud o’er de part ‘e’d played in die birt of unser village called Beau,
            An’ late win’er nights wi’ fire all flickerin’,
            De bol tale ‘e tol’ een de days long ago.

            Well, me zun, ‘t was on Zunday I virs’ zeed de harbour,
            Een de vall o’ de year wi’ de water like oil,
            I was zhovin’ long zhore wi’ me eye on de bottom,
            Lookin’ for someplace where me kettle could boil.

            Win zudden I hared up un Rid Cliff ‘a clatter,
            Like vounderin’ rocks an’ a pourin’ o’ gravel,
            An whin I looked up to where de stalligans grows,
            An h’Injun was perked on a little small level.

            An as I weres eating I noticed how nice twas,
            Up ‘ere in een de bottom ‘t was all level lan’,
            “Gains win’ from de zutheas’ and norteas was sheltered-
            De bes’ place to zittle in all Newfoundland”

            Don’t tell me that’s American English.

          • MrsPoppins says:

            I loved that, but please tell me the last sentence was a derisive sarcastic jab at shellback and not what you would normally say.

            African-Americans do speak a form of English that linguists studied and affirmed is a distinct dialect, just as is yours. Further, they do not think it has many connections to West African Creole as some used to claim, but share much more with old English dialects from Europe, and they most likely learned it from working with and living near indetured servants from England and is related to old English, as is Newfoundland English, perhaps because slaves worked alongisde and live with indentured servants from England.

          • MrsPoppins says:

            That is a ridiculous comment, entirely misunderstanding and misrepresenting what he described.

          • MrsPoppins says:

            How delightful! I’ve known many Canadians and lived most of my life near the border so I often recognize Canadian accents. However, where I lived, our accents were not the same as each others, but not vastly different eithers. Also, ours is a watered down version of theirs, which isn’t surprising given national borders are arbitrary lines and we shared a history. I did not realize we, their neighbors to the south, had accents similar to their until I moved away to another part of the country and heard both from a different perspective!

            I’ve I’ve ever met anyone who speaks Newfoundland English. I probably would have trouble understanding you, because I have a friend from South Africa and after losing some of my hearing, I struggle to understand her when I am sitting only two feet away looking right at her! Some words she said I always struggled with until we knew each other awhile, but that hearing loss really makes everything she says harder for me to understand now, just because she is pronouncing the same words in the same language as I, but in a slightly different way.

            I can’t under anyone from Scotland who hasn’t spent time outside their country and so lost some of their accent, despite our speaking the same basic language! Our accents and dialects are so different.

            What you refer to as accepted Canadian English is Standard Canadian English, or that is what Americans would call it at any rate. What you describe is the same in the states regarding what is called code switching. Children from various backgrounds, whether immigrants, deep south, African-American, and so on, speak English differently with their elders and their peers from the same community, but they learn American Standard English at school. Those who become well-educated very easily switch back and forth between their intimate communities and the professional world where they must speak Standard American English in order to be respected and viewed as professionals.

            President Obama is an example. When he is speaking to the country, he speaks very eloquently in Standard American English, and he doesn’t have to try because he is well-educated and it comes naturally to him. However, when he is being _really_ casual, joking around, and even more so when he is in front of an African-American audience, he code switches into African-American cadence and sometimes jargon too. That’s because he is talking like his intimates from his original community. In those venues, he is speaking to a roomful of people who speak Standard American English beautifully, but when they are together in a safe and comfortable setting, they relax and relate to each other as community the rest of us do not and never did belong to. I think it is lovely to watch, because for everyone, it feels good to be with one’s own racial/ethnic/cultural community, among people who share our backgrounds and experiences, and to whom we don’t have to explain everything. It is being at home.

            Everyone code switches to some degree, because in addition to the subcultures within our greater shared culture, there are regional and family subcultures too.

            My father’s family is from the south. My father knew how to speak standard American English, but most of the time he didn’t. Instead, when he wasn’t at work, he used the word “ain’t” a lot, as well as assorted old fashioned southern expressions my children’s friends have never heard of, and he retained a southern accent. Because his children did not grow up in the south, we don’t speak with southern accents, yet we do sometimes when we are joking around in a very relaxed fashion, and we use our southern relatives’ old expressions and cadence. My brother did live in the south for a long time and when he isn’t where it is unacceptable, he uses “ain’t” like our father did. He doesn’t even know it or think about it because it is what he falls back to when he is in an environment that allows for it. Yet he is well-educated and a very good writer.

            Thanks for taking the time to write your interesting and informative comment and posting it.

          • shellback says:

            You are also still not welcome in Florida, might I remind you.

          • don’t worry, couldn’t pay me to go to the states anyways. I’m a Socialist, I’d rather Sweden.

          • MrsPoppins says:

            Is anyone other than white redneck crackers welcome in Florida outside of Miami?

          • MrsPoppins says:

            Of course you learn Canadian English as every country teaches its children its primary language as well as the children learning it at home. The discussion is about what form of English is currently taught as a _second_ language in most of the world.

          • J. C. Smith says:

            When I was in the Army, I was attached to a British unit. When we found out a Canadian was coming, we were overjoyed — someone who spoke like Americans and wrote like the Brits. Turns out he was from Quebec and none of us understood a word he said.

        • Trust me, no one says ‘mom’ unless they are American.

          • MrsPoppins says:

            And therefore?

            I think you’ve missed the point of this discussion.

            Perhaps only Americans say mom, but anyone learning American English will know what it means when they hear it.

        • Andrea Hópar says:

          Actually, in Iceland, we learn British English, and are told on the side sometimes if the words are spelled differently in A.E. (American English) But on a test you stick to British. However, I’m getting more and more used to A.E. from using the internet a lot, speaking more often to people that speak A.E.

      • If the building is called a “theatre”, then what is the art form called? Is there a way to distinguish between the two out of context in the “English speaking world”? …I always thought the word was a French version of the original Greek..

      • MrsPoppins says:

        And who is arrogant?

  8. The correct version is theatre. This is because it originates from the Greek word for theatre; the English language copied it without changing
    anything.

  9. sup bro(s)

  10. It’s funny that people would bicker over this after the article pretty much says “It doesn’t really matter.”

  11. Something I’ve gotten in the habit of doing is using “theater” when referring to the place where movies are shown, and “theatre” when referring to the art form or building where the art form takes place. I suppose it’s because I feel like “theatre” is more formal and fancy, and I view live performances as more formal and fancy than movies. But I don’t really get up set (or even care that much) when people use the word differently.

    • Thank you. You get the A for the day :)

    • Patrick Tanner says:

      I tend to just use ‘theater’ when talking to friends not in the art form. I work in ‘theatre’ as a technician and have just learned to type it as -re. To me there is no difference, though I do get slightly disappointed when I see a theatre type it -er, for some unknown reason. I guess it’s because subconsciously it’s a misspelling, but in reality it’s not. They same thing with grey vs. gray.

      • MrsPoppins says:

        I always stumble over the difference in the American spelling of jewelery, versus the British, jewelry. It always used to look like a misspelling to me, but it isn’t. For some reason, over time, perhaps because I pronounce it jewelry, the British spelling started looking correct to me and the American wrong. Now I have to force myself and remember to spell it correctly, in American English because I don’t live in England, as much as I would like to.

        Then there is pronunciations. I grew up pronouncing the t in often. My fiance and then husband laughed at me and informed me I was mispronouncing it, and since he earned his college degree first, spoke and taught French, and loved words and language in general, I thought he must be right. I trained myself to lose the t and I’ve pronounced it with a silent t for 30 years. However, about 10 years into the marriage, I discovered _he_ was wrong and both pronunciations are correct. My parents teached me right after-all!

    • MrsPoppins says:

      Excellent and self-aware comment.

  12. As you can see though, there is no actual rule governing the usage of the word. This is just preference. Even all the comments point to a “preference” for the word – but there is no actual factual evidence to support a spelling either way.

  13. i am greek and the word theatre is greek and I am going to say this: theatre seems more correct to me (whether you refer to the venue or the art) because in greek the word is θεατρο and the R goes right after the t. That’s why when I write this word, I write it as theatre. Also, in modern greece, we do not distinguish between the art form and the venue. Theatre can mean both.

  14. Orro Jewellery says:

    theatrical or theaterical

  15. Richard Finkelstein says:

    The information presented in this article is pure bull and damaging bull at that. It is yet another example of “information laundering” wherein if enough people spread rubbish, then it magically becomes true. The problem for me is that I am a Professor in the field and we cover this issue in great depth in class. But because this website comes up first in a Google search and because it cites a few examples where people use the spelling to make incorrect distinctions, some students cling to the misinformation presented here. At least this particular website doesn’t try out the line that: “Theatre is for live theatre and theater is for movies”. This one is particularly lame as the spelling theater predates movies by a few hundred years. We live in a time of “faith-based reality” where news outlets ask people if they “believe in global warming” as though climate is determined by public opinion. In the matter at hand, From the Latin in French come the “er” ending, which then passed to Britain. Noah Webster, in his move towards a nationalistic (and simplified) American form of “English” proposed the switch to the -er ending, which also matched Germanic traditions. There it is. As newspapers in the US are sensitive to such things, the AP style guide sets THEATRE as “the proper spelling” for the word use in the U.S. and indeed in College we were chided for using the spelling theatre. Our Department Chair would chide us: “Our theater is in The United States! It is a theatER!”. This all does make for inconsistencies . When I arrived at my current professorial post, I was in a Theatre Area of a School of Theatre and Dance. If we were more powerful, who knows, millions might have come to the conclusion that “Areas are called Theatre and Schools are called Theatre”. In reality the spelling issue had a reason just as lame. When I went to complain I proposed spelling it consistently, no matter if the er or the re ending was to be used. Our faculty preferred the theatre variant. The University ruled that at the official level, which started at the school level, the spelling had to be Theater citing the AP Stylebook (information laundering strikes again). They didn’t mind that at the Area level we spelled it differently. I finally was able to bring not only consistency and sanity but also the spelling we like personally when I reported to the University powers that BOTH of our accreditation agencies spell their names with the Theatre spelling. When the Denver Post as cited above says: “Denver loses another theater space when the Vintage Theatre is bounced” it is NOT because one spelling has to do with a building. Rather the spelling that Vintage has CHOSEN for itself is “Theatre” while the AP Stylebook used by the paper specifies that as it is an American Paper, the Post must use the spelling Theater as ITS choice of spelling. This all has nothing whatsoever to do with whether the topic at hand is a building or is an artform though indeed there are a lot of people out there who will always choose a more colorful story as fact. There is however irony. If enough people believe the claptrap, eventually, given the way American dictionaries work, the majority will rule. Until then, the difference in spelling comes from the geographical path the word took to the language.

    • Richard Finkelstein says:

      Sorry for typos. I should have proofread. The AP guide sets THEATER as the spelling and I meant “Latin AND French” but typed the word “in” by accident.

  16. Datum. Spoken English loses its depth and beauty with ‘simplification’, I mean heater then add a ‘t’ theater for theatre; a simplification!!?, Neighbour becomes neighbor, why stop there, ‘neybor’ – but it doesn’t sound the same. In the UK the inappropriate use of the short ‘a’ on radio and TV is increasing horribly, it is messing up our afternoons, aftermath and past. Radio 4 once had beautifully spoken continuity announcers e.g.Charlotte Green; now since R4 has been relocated to Manchester, so often a fair proportion of their spoken English isn’t so much a particular regional accent as just plain bad and lazy. Never bothered me until recently, the annoyance threshold has been exceeded and I am not alone, it is so sad. PC in the UK fosters the erroneous assertion that working class northerners all speak like their stereotypes. What is a ‘tinedger’? How many ars are there in a day, and who on earth was Book the Dog? Foreign students don’t stand a chance listening to improve their pronunciation. Soon it will be wot ar yew torkin ubowt? I don’t mind the American pronunciation as it has energy and clarity, some of the bad UK pronunciations are just excruciating!!

  17. Hmm.. I’m a 49 year old mid-Western American and have always spelled it (in relation to cinema) “theatre”. I guess there are always exceptions to a ‘rule’.

  18. If you assume this like any other similar expression, the word theater is expressed as a whole idea. Its like, the real and only form which is, everything together and as a whole, outside in meaning. eg : place/theater screening.
    whereas theatre is pointing expression for a particular point which is inside or a consolidated position inside. like stage, screen or digital.. it is a two way expression referring to a singled out noun.

  19. Brendan E Kelly says:

    Just Because The Dictionary Is Constantly Revised , Hardly Means Meriam Webster Was Wrong ; Just Too – Long Dead To Argue The Point :

    EBONICALLY !

    PAX !

    > _ <

  20. gravityboots says:

    All the “theaters” on Broadway use “Theatre” in their names. So much for the American form being preferred. :/

  21. As a Greek, I can share my knowledge regarding the origins of this word.
    This word came from the ancient Greek term “theatron” (θέατρον). [The term originated from the verb “theaome” (θεάομαι) which means “to watch/to observe”.]
    As a result, I find the “theatre” version to be more correct. You ‘re welcome.

    You learn American English, British English… but you don’t learn Ancient Greek or Latin which is quite sad.

  22. come on guys. What’s the dealio with this spelling? like wtf english amirite? xD

  23. John Tahsuda IV says:

    Within the theatre world (even in the States), people will use theatre for the art form and theater for the physical location. If you are writing in the context of the world of drama, then you should distinguish between the two uses, or else look foolish or misinformed.

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