The words theatre and theater have different spellings, but they represent the same meanings. “Theater” is the preferred American spelling while “theatre” is the preferred British spelling.
What is the difference between theatre vs. theater?
If you’re watching a film, do you go to the movie theatre or movie theater? Do the words theatre and theater have different meanings for live performances? Understanding why the two terms have different spellings is confusing, but we can assure you that theatre and theater are the same words.
While most grammar references insist that “theater” is the preferred American spelling, it’s relatively normal to see both spelling variants throughout the United States. In fact, there are more famous American centers with names using “theatres” than “theaters.” Some of the most prominent performance venues in the U.S. include:
- Paramount Theatre (1931, California)
- Broadway Theatre (1924, New York)
- King Theatre (1929, New York)
- Saenger Theatre (1927, Louisiana)
- Kalita Humphreys Theater (1959, Texas)
But if only one out of five examples venues use “theater” instead of “theatre,” how do we know which form to write?
Despite the obvious spelling preferences shared by the conveyers of performance art, American references like Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary insist that “theater” is the correct spelling. British English dictionaries prefer the spelling of “theatre,” so, theoretically, it should be more common to see “theatre” in the United Kingdom than inside of the U.S.
Theatre vs. theater: different spellings, same word
The short answer to our grammatical predicament is that both forms of theater and theatre are correct. While it’s not as vindicating to choose one form over the other, the fact is that both words describe the same noun and adjective.
However, the centuries-old debate is worth learning about to understand why international art communities use “theatre” over “theater,” and how “theater” became a so-called “American preference.” But first, let’s discuss what the words theater (or theatre) means.
What do theater and theatre mean?
The word theater is a spelling variant of noun and adjective theatre. “Theatre” is the original spelling variant of the word’s modern definition, although international English dictionaries accepted both theater or theatre up until the 18th and 19th centuries. Nowadays, Modern English speakers can define the word theater in the following ways:
A place to perform
The most common definition of the noun theater involves an indoor or outdoor area with multiple seat rows and viewing platforms where people watch performances of acting, singing, dance, or other art forms. For example,
“My fiancé’s dream is to perform at the West End Theater.”
“Shakespeare lives on through the Globe Theatre in London.”
The variety of performance genres is what lends the term theater to informally mean “opera house,” “movie house,” “cinema,” or even “lecture theater,” but there other ways of defining the noun, as well.
Auditorium, amphitheater, ballroom, cinema, coliseum, drive-in, fleapit, hall, hippodrome, playhouse, stage room.
A performance art
In addition to location, the Cambridge Dictionary defines the noun theater as the creative practice of performance arts, itself (i.e., playwriting, screenwriting, acting, etc.). For example,
“I live for theater.”
“He became interested in the theater during the trip to New Zealand.”
Acting, drama, entertainment, plays, production, showbiz.
A behavior or performance
Along the same lines, we can also define theater as an insincere behavior performed with the intent of attention or emotional manipulation. For example,
“His insistent apologies are nothing more than theater.”
In this sense, we also use the word theater for “theatrics” that’s akin to “drama” and “dramatic.” For example,
“Nobody has time for your theatrics.”
Drama, histrionics, melodrama, performance, spectacle.
A time or place of significance
A less common definition of the noun theater either infers a location where significant military actions occur (e.g., “the theater of war”), or where the real or imaginary places where prominent life events take place.
For example, we can write “the theater of childhood” to describe the location of adolescence or “the theater of social media” to depict a performative digital life. Alternatively, British English uses theatre in this sense to describe a stage where live surgical operations take place.
Arena, scene, setting, stage.
What about theater as an adjective?
We can define the word theater as an adjective to describe the operations of “theater” or to appropriate the association of such. For example,
“She works in the theater industry.”
“Welcome to the theater scene.”
“The guns are not real; they are theater props.”
The dramatic history of theater vs. theatre
Grammarians have debated the efficacies between theatre and theater since the days of William Shakespeare (c. 1585-1613). As far as we can tell from Shakespeare’s writing, he preferred to use “theater” over “theatre.” This observation makes sense, however, as “theater” became the prevalent variant for England between 1550 and 1700, according to The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories.
But somewhere between 1720 and 1750, British English readapted the French spelling “theatre,” which had once acquired popular sentiment among English writers like Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400). According to the Oxford reference, the word theatre is a Middle English term that stems from Old French and Latin ‘theatrum.’ The earlier version of ‘theatrum’ originated in the Greek Language with ‘theatron’ from ‘theasthai’ for “behold” (Chantrell 508).
The origins of American English vs. British English
Since the mid-18th century, the word “theater” became the standard spelling for American English, but “theatre” remains the standard for British English. How could this be? As it turns out, several factors come into play.
To start, let’s not forget that the concept of “American English” couldn’t begin without an America to begin with. Between the time of the first European colonizers and the Declaration of Independence of 1776, the initial 13 American colonies were under the control of Great Britain.
In fact, Great Britain didn’t even recognize the United States as a sovereign nation until the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which ended the War of the American Revolution. So up until this point, the majority of “American English” consisted of British English with French, Spanish, and local Native American colloquialisms.
After the war, American lexicographer Noah Webster began writing an American English dictionary that somewhat linguistically divorced the U.S. from Great Britain. By 1806, Webster released A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, thus sparking age-old discrepancies between American and British English spelling.
Among Webster’s formal changes to American English lies theatre vs. theater, color vs. colour, and music vs. musick. However, these spelling preferences are actually on par with that of Shakespeare’s interchangeable variants. So while Webster cannot take credit for creating American English, per se, his work played a large role in establishing linguistic norms in American academia.
Theater vs. theatre and “all that’s fit to print”
The debate over theater and theatre continues into Modern English thanks to the advent of 19th and 20th-century press media. In 1962, The New York Times played a direct hand in influencing the public discourse regarding theatre vs. theater when the publication officially endorsed the spelling of “theater” over “theatre.”
Nearly 50 years later, it’s difficult to find any American news writing authority that doesn’t hold the same opinion. Both The Chicago Manual of Style and The AP Stylebook suggests using “theater” in all circumstances except when “theatre” is a part of a formal title, such as “Broadway Theatre” (“Theater” 273).
When to use theatre vs. theater?
At the end of the day, American professionals and academics insist on using “theater” over “theatre.” So if you’re job depends on it, we suggest following their lead:
- If you’re in the United States, use “theater” as the preferred spelling. The only exception is when the term “theatre” is part of a formal title.
- If you’re in the United Kingdom, the correct form to use is “theatre.” No exceptions.
Ready to let your English grammar skills shine in the spotlight? Test how well you understand the difference between theater and theatre with the following multiple-choice questions.
- True or false: Theatre and theater have different meanings.
- Which is not an example of a theater or theatre?
a. Surgical stage
c. Opera house
d. None of the above
- Which spelling variant is preferred by British English?
c. All of the above
- Which spelling variant is preferred by American English?
c. All of the above
- Which American lexicographer first published an official American preference for theater vs. theatre?
a. The New York Times
b. George Merriam
c. Noah Webster
d. Charles Merriam
- Barber, Megan. “The 24 most spectacular theaters in the U.S.” Curbed, Vox Media, 25 Jul 2019.
- Chantrell, Glynnis. “Theatre.” The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 508.
- Hodge, Francis. “Theat-re or Theat-er: Samuel Johnson or Noah/Merriam Webster?” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, 21 Oct 2010.
- “Theater.” The Associated Press Stylebook, The Associated Press, Jul 2017, pp. 273.
- “Theater.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2020.
- “Theatre.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
- “Theater.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
- “Proper Names.” The Chicago Manual of Style Online, The University of Chicago, 2017.
- Shakespeare, William (1623). “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.” Project Gutenberg, Jan 1994. “The Declaration of Independence, 1776.” Office of the Historian, Foreign Service Institute, United States Department of State, n.d.