Gray or grey: What’s the difference?

Gray or grey?

The words grey and gray represent the same color, but are spelled differently in the United States and the United Kingdom. The US spells gray with an “a” while the UK spells grey with an “e.” The a and e are not used interchangeably for proper nouns, such as Earl Grey Tea or the Greyhound dog species.

What is the difference between gray and grey?

Deciphering gray from grey is one of the most common spelling questions found online, but American English and British English use gray and grey to mean the same color and neither version is incorrect. In fact, most students who use an English dictionary to look up gray will find themselves redirected to the definition of grey and vice versa because they are not different colors. People often use the words gray and grey to represent a hue or describe a person, place, or thing with the connotations associated with gray or grey.

The primary difference between gray and grey depends on if one is talking about color, an SI unit of measurement, or referring to a proper noun. If grey and gray are used for something other than color, then gray and grey will have different meanings.

Gray vs. grey is dependent on location

The correct spelling of gray and grey differ depending on what part of the world you are using it. Grey and gray are spelled with the “a” and “e” used interchangeably depending on location as well. American English typically uses the spelling with the “a” while British English uses the “e.”

Regardless of the way you spell gray and grey, be sure to use consistency as your compass. Most people do not have a preference for either spelling unless there is a specificity in proper nouns, such as someone’s name. However, if you’re writing for an American audience or British audience specifically, it is best to use gray and grey as they see fit.

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How to remember gray vs. grey

Grammar students use a mnemonic device to learn when to use grey or gray. When spelling gray, use the A to stand for America, where it is commonly spelled as such. When spelling grey, allow the E to stand for England, where people use grey instead of gray.

Gray = A = United States of America

Grey = E = England

Gray or grey

What is the definition of gray or grey?

As a noun, gray is defined as a dull, matte, and neutral color developed between white and black. When describing something as the color, gray is used as an adjective. Common usage of gray as a color include:

Gray clouds, gray elephants, gray metal, gray hair, gray eyes, gray fog, gray clothing, etc.

Anything gray in character is considered dull, uninteresting, dismal, cheerless, or gloomy. For example,

The winter is filled with gray days,

or

The professor’s gray, dreary tone lingered all day.

The word gray is also used to describe a state of limbo, an undefined place, or an intermediate area between two distinctive points. It is common to read this use of gray in sentences like,

We are stuck in a gray area,

or

Life is not black and white. There is some gray in the middle.

As a verb, gray is defined as the action of making something gray or becoming gray, which essentially encompasses the act of aging. In this sense, to gray is to become older.

With every passing day, my soul and sense have grayed.

or

My mother’s hair is graying.

Synonyms and antonyms of gray or grey

Synonyms of gray as a color include:

Argentine, grayish, leaden, pewter, silver, slate, steely, and washed-out.

An antonym of gray color is possible with words such as:

Bright, cheery, rich, chromatic, colorful, or motley.

Synonyms of gray as an attitude are:

Bleak, cloudy, cold, comfortless, depressing, desolate, dreary, or forlorn.

The opposite of a gray attitude is one described as:

Blithesome, buoyant, jocund, jolly, joyous, or merry.

Guide of exceptions for using grey vs. gray

While there are location-specific rules to how you should spell gray or grey, there are exceptions made for spelling the word when they are apart of a title or name. For instance, there are numerous companies and products utilizing grey and gray as a proper name, such as Earl Grey tea, named after former UK prime minister, Charles Grey (1764-1845). The following list of exceptions is not exhaustive but a useful beginner’s list for remembering when to use gray or grey.

Gray Confederate Army

Although it is nearly obscure in modern vocabulary, gray’s noun form is also defined as a Confederate soldier who fought during the American Civil War, as their uniforms are recorded as the color gray.

Gray (Gy): Unit of measurement for energy

Physicists use the word gray as a scientific measurement of energy term similar to a joule or dalton. In fact, one joule of absorbed radiation is equivalent to one gray (Gy) after energy is ionized by one kilogram of a substance.

The science term was named after English radiobiologist Louis H. Gray in the 1970s’, and since then, the majority of the world’s SI unit system replaced the rad with gray as a measurement of energy except for the United States. In case you’re wondering what the numerical equivalent looks like:

1 unit of absorbed radiation (rad) = 0.01 Gray (Gy) Joules (J) per kilogram (kg)
1 rad = 0.01 Gy = 0.01 J/kg

Animal species

Concerning animal species, Greyhound dog breeds are always spelled with an “e,” while the Gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) and the Gray tree frog (Hyla versicolor) are always spelled with an “a.”

The following list of animals are spelled using “a” and “e” interchangeably:

Gray/grey wolf (Canis lupus)
Gray/grey fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)
Gray/grey rat snake (Pantherophis spiloides)
Eastern gray/grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

Books, movies, and television

While writing about the American television series, Grey’s Anatomy, it is important to use the letter “e.” It is important to note though, the tv show is named after Gray’s Anatomy –– spelled with an “a” –– a famous medical textbook on human anatomy written by English surgeon Henry Gray in 1856. This is a coincidental flip-flop of the US vs. UK rule, although the English author’s last name was spelled as such. Another confusing exception in popular culture include the book-to-movie titles, Fifty Shades of Grey and The Picture of Dorian Gray, which both use different spellings of gray and grey.

Medical terminology

Both grey and gray are used interchangeably for grey matter, a central nervous system term. The word grey is used solely for Grey Turner’s sign, a medical term named after British surgeon George Grey Turner to describe a specific bruising symptom.

Gray-or-grey-2

The history of the color gray and grey

The word grey is of Germanic origin and derives from the Old English word grǣg, which is connected to the Dutch word grauw and German word grau. According to The Oxford Dictionary of World Histories, each derivative of grey is historically used in Middle English to represent grey as a “sad” and “dismal” color.

Gray is known to exist in the English language before the 12th century and evolved into a verb form around the 14th century. Lexicographers did not begin to use gray as the preferred American variant until 1825, although either form has remained acceptable in the US. Just over a century later, the word grey developed a connotation with “faceless” and “anonymous” politicians around the 1960s’ (“Grey,” 239).

While the spelling of gray and grey have remained a regional nuance, there are instances in history where scholars have attempted to make a distinction in spelling, In 1835 British scientist George Field made an unpopular claim that there was a difference between shades depending on the spelling. Field unsuccessfully argued how the color gray had a cooler, blue tone while the color grey was the neutral hue of the two.

It is unclear why the color gray is associated with gloomy context throughout the history of linguistics, but the color gray did not always carry a dull-vibe per se. Few sources credit the color’s reputation of representing modesty and refinement in times such as the Victorian Era, or moments of discretion for aristocratic figures during the French Revolution. Author Frances Geurin adds weight to this depiction in The Truth is Always Grey: A History of Modernist Painting, by arguing how the use of gray throughout art history are indicative of political upheaval (Guerin).

Nineteenth-century artists such as Charles Baudelaire and Vincent Van Gogh celebrated different shades of gray throughout their paintings and written musings. It was not until the end of World War Two when the color gray began to become more synonymous with the dull, melancholy connotations of post-Industrial Revolution as we know it today.

Test Yourself!

See how well you understand the difference between using grey and gray with the following multiple choice questions.

  1. Americans did not begin to use gray over grey until which century?
    1. 17th century
    1. 18th century
    1. 19th century
  2. Let’s say you’re writing for the New York Times. Do you use graying or greying to describe an aging noun?
    1. Greying
    1. Graying
  3. If you’re writing for a British audience, should you use the word grayling or greyling?
    1. Grayling
    1. Greyling
  4. If you find yourself in an undefined area between two defined points, you are located in the ______________:
    1. Gray area
    1. Grey area
    1. Both
  5. Choose the correct antonym of gray:
    1. Dull
    1. Blithesome
    1. Dreary
    1. Forlorn

Answers

  1. C: 19th century
  2. B: Graying, the NYT writes for an American audience
  3. B: Greyling
  4. C: Both
  5. B: Blithesome

Sources

  1. Alchin, L.K. “The Color Gray.” Elizabethan Era, 2012.
  2. Gray.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2019.
  3. Gray.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2019.
  4. Gray.” Merriam-Webster’s Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2019.
  5. Gray.” Online Etymology Dictionary, Douglas Harper, 2019.
  6. “Grey.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2019.
  7. “Grey.” Merriam-Webster’s Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2019.
  8. “Grey.” The Oxford Dictionary of World Histories, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 239.
  9. Guerin, Frances. “The Truth is Always Grey: The History of Modernist Painting.” University of Minnesota Press, 2018.
  10. Hoary.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2019.
  11. Venerable.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2019.

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