Ax vs. axe

Ax and axe are different spellings of the same word. Axe is standard in varieties of English from outside the U.S. Axe also appears in American English, but the newer spelling, ax, has gained ground over the last half century and is now more common.

The distinction extends to compounds involving ax and axe. For instance, Americans often use pickax and broadax, while English speakers elsewhere use pickaxe and broadaxe.

Examples

For example, these American publications use ax:

Legislature: Youth receiving centers face budget ax [Salt Lake Tribune]

Police say a call about Santa Claus running around a Buffalo Grove, Ill., neighborhood brandishing an ax turned out to be a student film project. [UPI.com]

But it’s just as easy to find examples of axe in American sources:

Mr. Hutchinson clutched the axe he always stores in his attic and cleared an escape hole for the four people and three pets. [Wall Street Journal]

But Ryan’s budget axe comes down hardest on Medicaid — not Medicare. [Washington Post Wonkbook blog]

Axe is used throughout the non-U.S. English-speaking world—for example:

Redditch United axe playing budget as manager leaves [BBC News]

Winnipeg Police are looking for suspects after three men were allegedly attacked with an axe late Friday night. [CBC]

Last month, the district council put forward proposals to axe travel tokens for its residents to save £88,000 a year … [Herald Series]

Woodchipper Gunns may be running out of time to stop an axe from falling on its head. [Sydney Morning Herald]

Ngram

This Ngram charts the use of ax and axe in American books published from 1800 to 2019:

Ax vs Axe American English

Though this graph shows ax only slightly ahead, searches of current articles in American news publications shows approximately a 2-1 ratio in favor of ax.

72 thoughts on “Ax vs. axe”

  1. Im a born and raised american and ive always spelled it axe…i also use the spelling grey, they both seem more fit to me but apperently my country is stupid

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    • Thank you for your comment. We base these posts on data rather than any individual’s experience with the language, but you were right to call our attention to this post, as our statement that “ax” is standard in American English was inaccurate. “Ax” is indeed more common than “axe” in this century, at least in American news publications that put their content online, but “axe” is still quite common. We’ve updated the post to reflect this.

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  2. Have you good people considered that the usage of “ax” might have become more popular with the influx of more and more fantasy litterature, where “ax” is often used when describing the weapon of choice of dwarves, rather than “axe”? Just an observation!

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    • I don’t think so. I’m not a native speaker. So my contact with the word comes almost totally from that kind of stories. And i can tell you that today, almost 6 years since I started to read english fluently, it’s the first time i saw it spelled “ax”. (That’s why i googled it).

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      • I think it was a valid question by Marcus, but I agree with you. I actually see “axe” more often in fantasy literature. At the same time, I couldn’t swear to it. It just grates on me when I see “ax” that I’m pretty sure I’d have noticed.

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    • BTW, Tolkien used “axe.”

      “…and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the troll guard of Gothmog until it withered…”

      Point of interest – Tolkien also spelled the plural of “dwarf” as “dwarves” (not “dwarfs”) to distinguish them from human “dwarfs.”

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  3. I grew up in Canada and now live in the U.S. Have seen both spellings.
    One of my teacher colleagues here in the U.S. has never seen it spelled “axe” and told a student spelling “axe” for an in-class spelling bee that he was incorrect.

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  4. I actually found this while wondering why spell checker says ‘axe’ is spelled incorrectly, since while I’ve always held decent grades in my English skills as an American the alternate spelling “ax” as it is makes no sense.

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  5. Because I’m English I have always known it as axe. What is the plural of ax, axs? Axes? If it’s axes then it completely defeats the point.

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  6. When I saw the movie title on Lifetime, “Lizzie Borden Took An Ax,” I was confused as I have always spelled it axe. It doesn’t look right without the “e.”

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    • Haha I searched because of the same movie. Netflix? :D
      Also I agree Ax doesn’t look right. I’m gonna keep using axe, even though google is trying to kill the word, as it says it’s not in the dictionary.

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  7. One thing I don’t particularly like about English, particularly American English, is that misspellings can rather easily become the accepted spelling if enough people are ignorant. That goes for definitions too. Now, according to the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary, literally literally doesn’t mean literally (see definition 2), that is, unless it does (see definition 1).
    Regarding the theory put forward by Marcus, I’m an avid “epic fantasy” reader, where axes abound, and I had never run into “ax” before today, when my Droid text spellcheck told me that it wasn’t a word. I won’t, however, hang my hat on anything related to texting. The texting mantra seems to be “less is better,” less vocabulary, less vowels, less forethought, etc. Unfortunately, texting’s effect on the English language isn’t limited to phones. The virtual death of commas certainly hasn’t helped the clarity of Facebook posts.

    Finally, having grown up in Utah and having read my fair share of Salt Lake Tribune articles, I wouldn’t have much confidence in referencing that publication’s headlines to support grammar or spelling validity.

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    • I find it funny that the common misuse of words by ignorant people is not to your liking. This is because you used the term “theory” when talking about Marcus’s hypothesis. The word theory was originally a term that was used strictly for an idea that was supported by substantial evidence. Through the constant use of theory as simply an idea or prediction by ignorant people, it has become accepted that theory can be substituted for idea, prediction, and hypothesis.

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      • Ha! Glad to have amused you. I did not intend to use “ignorant” pejoratively. I should have ended that sentence, “of the correct spelling.” And no, the irony of having lost meaning by condensing my thought is not lost on me. I frequently prove myself ignorant and find no shame in that. Correct me and I will learn. Don’t let my (and others’) ignorance be accepted as sufficient reason to oficially dilute the richness of meaning found in the english language!

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  8. I’m an American. I can clearly remember that I was taught ax in school. We are taught that when two vowels are close to each other, the first is long and the second is silent. (though not always): fat -> fate, wa -> way, ba -> bae, at -> ate. This is not always the case, but when it is then two or more consonants will avoid any phonic change.
    ride -> riding, rid -> ridding

    In the decade since I left high-school, I have ALWAYS seen ax being spelled axe. With a spelling like axe, one might think that the a will be long: “ay-ks” instead of a-ks. However, we continue to see axe over the years despite this.

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    • This explanation makes complete sense to me. “Axe” always looked better to me even though I usually like shorter spellings better, but now that I can see a reasonable argument for “ax” I can happily make the switch. Thank you!

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    • I find it amusing you use ba -> bae as an example… I don’t think you realize that bae is actually a danish word for ‘poop’ and it’s not even listed in the dictionary as a word… it just means poop.

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  9. As someone who lives in America, I can say that I’ve never seen anyone write “broadax” or “pickaxe.” I’ve mostly seen the word with the E.

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  10. South African English here. When talking about a numerous quantity of such objects, do you Americans resort to ‘axs’ or ‘axes’?

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    • And do you use matchs or matches? couchs or couches? pouchs or pouches? Ax doesn’t look right to me, but if you sound it out in english, it makes sense. Axe would sound like Ay-x and Ax would sound like ah-x, which is how it’s pronounced. So Ax makes more sense, but I like Axe better.

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      • “ah-x” = ox to me. I don’t really have a point, but just noticed the “ah-x” and was thinking to myself that I wouldn’t pronounce either spelling that way.

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  11. Steven King used “ax” all the time in The Shining and I was really confused as to what it was he was talking about. I’m British and have only ever seen axe- ax looks like a mistake (as someone else pointed out)

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  12. Another example is when they spell “their” thinking they are spelling “they’re.” (This smart ### moment brought to you by…)

    No pronunciation rule in American English is hard and fast. For example, why do their, they’re and there all sound the same? And, specifically, given your rule above, why does “there” not follow it? Why does it sound like “th-ay–er” rather than “th–EE–er,” as the above rule would indicate?

    I prefer “axe” because it was apparently so prevalent that nearly every other English-speaking country spells it this way. But that’s nonsense, too, because I’m perfectly at ease with not having the “U” in “laboUR,” “favoUr,” etc. So, I suppose it comes down to the way I was originally taught and was ingrained in me by most literature I read throughout school and since. It’s obvious to me from this page that it was hardly taught in a uniform manner, so I guess I need to learn to be more open to the “other” spelling.

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  13. “Ax” is of course the more logical and obvious spelling. Pro tip: if you can add a letter to a word, and that added letter does not change the spelling of the word at all–if, in other words, that added letter is completely useless–you should not add that letter.

    God bless you, Noah Webster.

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  14. Currently MS Word spell checker accepts both spellings as correct. Webster lists it as AX, however it also lists AXE as an acceptable spelling. Ironically typing AXE here in this comment box it got underlined in red as misspelled! Right clicking it reveals AX or AXES in the plural.

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  15. I’ve lived in UT all of my life, and I’ve always struggled with this. Axe looks right to me, but my auto-corrects always put that annoying red line under it. I am one of the few in this younger generation who actually laments the continuous and rapid degradation of this language. The most meaningful, and often concise, words are quickly falling into oblivion, so increasing familiarity with older works greatly enriches one’s vocabulary; although it may be much to the detriment of hard-earned spelling skills.

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  16. The Oxford English Dictionary says “The spelling ax is better on every ground, of etymology, phonology, and analogy, than axe, which became prevalent during the 19th century; but it is now disused in Britain.” I always took it to mean that “axe” was the newer of the two variants. Despite this, I prefer “axe” myself.

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  17. I learned in South Korea in PSA and in CI and I only learned axe. I thought the science book was wrong ion ax but I guess I was wrong!

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