Ax vs. axe?

Axe” and “ax” are two ways to spell the same noun or verb, whether you’re describing a hatchet, a loss of employment, or a musical instrument.

Your writing, at its best

Compose bold, clear, mistake-free writing with Grammarly's AI-powered writing assistant

What is the difference between ax and axe?

The words axe and ax have different spellings, but they share the same pronunciation and meaning. For instance, we use an ax to split wood (noun), or we might ax down a tree” (verb). You might also hear the expression “to get the ax,” which uses the noun and verb forms to convey a job dismissal or a reduction of costs. 

Perhaps one of the more informal uses of ax or axe is in reference to a saxophone or a guitar. In this case, English speakers only use ax/axe as a noun, never as a verb. 

As we can see, it doesn’t matter how we spell the terms–– they share the same meaning. The most important difference between ax and axe comes down to one’s national spelling standard (i.e., British English vs. American English). 

How to spell ax vs. axe?

The trickiest part of learning ax vs. axe is deciphering how to spell it correctly. Most grammar sources believe “ax” is strictly standard for American English while British English sticks to “axe,” but not all American writing guides agree with this notion.

To start, Garner’s Modern English Usage (GMEU) argues against the Oxford English Dictionary’s belief that “ax” is the best term to use “on every ground of etymology, phonology, and analogy.” According to GMEU, “axe” is the standard spelling for American English and British English because it appears more frequently in American publications. 

The American Heritage Dictionary appears to support GMEU by listingaxe or ax,” although The Associated Press Stylebook insists that “ax” is the proper spelling, not “axe.” The Chicago Manual of Style also agrees with AP, as it utilizes Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (aka Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary) for all spelling rules. 

It appears nobody can agree on a standard spelling for The United States, but we can take a final say with Grammarly, which stipulates: 

  • Axe” is a non-American variant (British English). 
  • Ax” is the standard spelling for American English. 

What does ax mean?

Similarly to a hatchet, an ax is a metal chopping tool with a wooden handle that splits wood or a hammer with a sharpened edge that spalls stone. Therefore, the verb ax (or axe) means ‘to chop, split, sever, shape, or trim’ with an ax (especially when it is violent or destructive). 

Noun examples: 

  • “The firemen used an ax to tear down the door.” 
  • “Watch out for the ax because it is sharp.” 
  • “Grandfather made a living felling trees with his ax.” 

Verb examples: 

  • “First responders axed down the door.” 
  • “We are axing branches away from the tree.” 
  • “Today, we will learn how to ax stone.” 

The noun ax can also describe an official dismissal from a job or an abrupt elimination of something–– allowing the verb form to follow suit. According to The New Oxford American Dictionary, ‘to ax/axe is to: 

  1. “End, cancel, or dismiss suddenly and ruthlessly,” or; 
  2. “Reduce (costs or services) drastically.”

Noun examples: 

  • “Low-performing employees got the ax.” 
  • “My boss gave me the ax for showing up late.” 
  • “Non-essential departments may get the ax if budget cuts continue.”

Verb examples: 

  • “The company axed two different departments.” 
  • “We had to ax two employees today.” 
  • “My boss is axing the budget for daily happy hours.” 

Lastly, the nouns axe or ax are informal terms for the saxophone or guitar, dating back to 1955 and 1967, respectively. For example, 

  • “The jazz musician wailed away on his ax.” 
  • “The prized ax auctioned for over a million dollars.” 
  • “The ax wielding songstress mesmerized tv viewers.” 

Etymology of ax and axe

Ax (or axe) originates from Old English æx and æcs, which parallels other Germanic languages with words like Áxt (German) and aaks (Dutch) (“Ax” 113). 

How to use ax in a sentence

Now that we understand the various definitions of ax, let’s examine how these terms appear in mainstream media. As a reminder, the spelling of “ax” is more common for American English, while “axe” is standard for British English. But no matter where you live, the correct verb forms include: 

  • Ax (present tense)
  • Axed (past participle)
  • Axing (present participle and continuous tenses)

Ax” as a musical instrument

To use ax or axe for a guitar or saxophone, be sure to use the term as a noun. For example,

Noun: “The guitarist and comedian traded riffs, with Eddie wailing on his ax while Winslow provided impressively realistic guitar-like vocals.” –– Ultimate Classic Rock

Noun: “As always with the Boss, Clarence Clemons is close by, his 1967 Selmer saxophone hanging by the ax [guitar] in the exhibit.” –– Cleveland Magazine

Noun: “The modal tune found Whalum doing a Trane-like slow burn on his tenor saxophone (and a bit of soprano, Coltrane’s second ax)…” –– The Washington Post

Noun: “The death of legendary ax grinder Eddie Van Halen is a sad reminder of how far rock music has fallen…” –– The Spectator USA

Ax” as a cutting tool

When using ax or axe to describe a cutting tool, we can use the term as a noun or a verb. For example, 

Noun: “Grab an ax and get ready for competitive throwing in Plymouth.” –– Enterprise News

Noun: “What ever became of the ax from The Shining?” –– Vanity Fair

Verb: “… Big Creek officials say they are still made out to be a bugaboo looking to ax down the forests.” –– HMB Review 

Verb: “A neem tree was fully axed down by workers of the private contractor, said locals…” –– Times of India 

Verb: “Nothing stops Abbotsford homeowners from axing large, healthy trees…” –– The Abbotsford News 

Ax” as a process of elimination or reduction

The noun and verb ax (or axe) describes the process of eliminating or reducing something, such as a job or a budget. The noun ax represents the process itself, while the verb describes the active procedure. For example,

Noun: “The ax wielding follows the failure of lead drug lenabasum in two advanced clinical trials in the space of a month.” –– Fierce Biotech 

Noun: “Should college sports get the ax?” –– Wall Street Journal 

Verb: “Exxon to ax 1,600 jobs across Europe as pandemic forces cost cuts.” –– Yahoo News

Verb: “Chevron axing thousands of U.S. jobs, but some operations are spared.” –– Denver Business Journal

Verb: “Radio reporters to be axed by BBC and told to reapply for new roles.” –– The Guardian

How to remember ax vs. axe?

To remember the difference between ax and axe, associate the letter ‘e’ of axe with “England” (to remember its ‘British English’ spelling). 

  • Ax = no ‘E’ = American English
  • Axe = ‘E’ for England = British English

FAQ: Related to axe vs. ax

Is it battle-ax or battleax?

If you’re describing an ancient weapon with a long handle and a sharp, heavy head, the correct spelling is “battle-ax” or “battleax” for American English, and “battle-axe” or “battleaxe” for all British spellings. 

Similar spelling differences occur with terms like:

  • Broadax (US), broadaxe (UK)
  • Hand ax (US), hand axe (UK)
  • Pickax (US), pickaxe (UK)
  • Poleax (US), poleaxe (UK)

What does ‘to have an ax to grind’ mean?

To have an ax to grind” is an expression that means ‘to have an ulterior motive’ or ‘to have a private end to serve.’ According to Cassel’s Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, the phrase originated with Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) in the essay “Too Much for Your Whistle,” where he described a young man that took an interest in Franklin’s grindstone (Reese 116). 

In the process of explaining the grindstone, Franklin sharpened the man’s ax for him, fulfilling the hidden purpose of the man’s visit all along. From that point on, Franklin made it a point to question whether people had ‘another axe to grind’ before engaging with them (116). 

Origin debate

Some sources believe that American politician Charles Miner (1780–1865) coined the expression in 1810, but Franklin died ten years after Miner’s birth–– placing 31 to 39 years between Miner’s essay and Franklin’s most prominent writings. 

However, none of Franklin’s works explicitly use the phrase “to have an axe to grind.” The only available evidence of Franklin’s coinage takes place in his Autobiography (1791), where the story, not the phrase, is presented like a fable. 

Additional reading

The Word Counter has covered similar varieties of English spellings, such as: 

Test Yourself!

Test how well you understand the difference between ax vs. axe with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. True or false:  “Axe” is a misspelling of “ax” in England. 
    a. True
    b. False
  2. The noun “ax” is not a _____________. 
    a. Chopping tool 
    b. Saxophone
    c. Job
    d. Guitar 
  3. Which of the following spellings is nonstandard for American English? 
    a. Broadaxe
    b. Pickaxe
    c. Poleaxe
    d. All of the above
  4. The noun ax is also a verb except when it involves __________. 
    a. Employment
    b. Lumber 
    c. Musical instruments
    d. Budget cuts
  5. The phrase “axe to grind” represents ____________. 
    a. Starting a fight
    b. An ulterior motive
    c. The intent to debate
    d. Smashing a guitar

Answers

  1. B
  2. C
  3. D
  4. C
  5. B

Sources

  1. “Ax.” The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2017, 52nd ed., Hachette Book Group, Jul 2017, p. 27.
  2. Ax.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  3. “Ax.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 113.
  4. Axe.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020. 
  5. Axe.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  6. Battleaxe.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  7. Garner, B. “Ax; axe.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 89. 
  8. Harper, D. “Axe (n.).Online Etymology Dictionary, Etymonline, 2020. 
  9. Highways officials file complaint against illegal pruning of trees.” Times of India, 18 Sept 2020. 
  10. Innes-Smith, J. “The death of an ax man.” The Spectator USA, 8 Oct 2020. 
  11. Noack, M. “Timber firm wary of growing greenbelt.Half Moon Bay Review, 2 Jul 2014. 
  12. Reese, N. “Have an axe to grind, to.” Cassell’s Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, 3rd ed., Cassell, 2004, p. 116. 
  13. Stewart, D. “Springsteen’s Fabled Telecaster Shines At Rock Hall’s Play It Loud.” Cleveland Magazine, 28 Jan 2020. 
  14. Taylor, N.P. “Corbus to ax half of staff after back-to-back trial failures.” Fierce Biotech, 9 Oct 2020. 
  15. To ax.” Reverso Conjugator, Reverso-Softissimo, 2020. 
  16. UCR Staff, “Our 25 favorite Eddie Van Halen stories.” Ultimate Classic Rock, 8 Oct 2020. 
  17. West, M. “Saxophonist Kenneth Whalum III at Bohemian Caverns.” The Washington Post, 27 Jan 2013.