Did you see a grey mouse? Or did you buy a gray shirt? Most people do not know the difference between gray and grey and just take a guess at which one they think is right. While sometimes that works okay because you either guess it correctly or no one notices your error, other times using the wrong one can be utterly embarrassing when someone calls you out in a text stream with your boss or crush.
This article will explain to you the difference between the two, very similar spellings. You will also learn how to use each one correctly.
- Is there really a difference?
- The meaning of gray or grey
- When are gray and grey not interchangeable?
- Why are there two spellings?
- Remembering which one
Is there really a difference?
Yes, there really is a difference between gray and grey. If you live or are spending some time in the United States of America, the most popular and common spelling of the word is gray, with an a. On the other hand, if you are in Britain or any other English speaking country, they probably would spell the word grey, with an e.
So the difference between the two words is really all about where you are. While the two words usually mean the same thing, knowing your grammar geography can save you from a few frustrating debates.
The meaning of gray or grey
Because the difference in the words is simply geography, the meaning of grey and the meaning of gray are interchangeable in almost every instance, except for proper nouns (which we will talk about later.) First, let’s talk about all the ways gray/grey can be used.
There is a color that is called gray. It is a mix between black and white and can be used in reference to painting, hair, clothing, animals, or pretty much any other colored thing. Below are a few examples of gray/grey, used as a noun.
- “The woman noticed the appearance of gray in her hair.” OR “The woman noticed the appearance of grey in her hair.”
- “Gray is a beautiful color.” OR “Grey is a beautiful color.”
The word gray/grey can also be used to describe nouns that are that color between black and white. It can also be used to describe the weather that is dull, cloudy, or stormy. Finally, the word can be used to describe an elderly person or someone who is sick or in a bad mood.
- “She is in a gray mood.” OR “She is in a grey mood.”
- “This week has had lots of gray weather.” OR “This week has had lots of grey weather.”
- “That is a gray shirt.” OR “That is a grey shirt.”
People do not often think of the fact that gray/grey can be used as a verb, but it can. If you are talking about someone or something getting older or entering old age, you may use the word gray to describe that process. Just like the other uses, you can use either form depending on where you are.
- “He has grayed.” OR “He has greyed.”
- She is graying.” OR “She is greying.”
When are gray and grey not interchangeable?
Gray and grey are very interchangeable, but there are a few times where the two are not interchangeable. Any time the word is used as a proper noun, for example, in a name, you cannot just change the word because you feel like it or because you go to a different part of the world.
Additionally, there are certain words that have very specific spellings, so you cannot just change the spelling. For example, the dog breed, greyhound, has very specific spelling because the title has nothing to do with the color of the dog. It is not a gray or grey hound; it is a greyhound. The same is true for Earl Grey tea and a unit of measure called the gray.
The final instance you may not be able to use the two interchangeably is if you are talking to an artist about color swatches. Sometimes gray and grey can be used to reference different shades of the color, and therefore spelling is important.
Why are there two spellings?
So if the words can almost always be used interchangeably, why are there two different spellings? Well, to figure that out, you have to look at history. Both words come from greig, an Old English word. Over time, the spelling of the word shifted to many different things including “greie,” “greye,” and “graye.” Eventually, gray and grey became two of the most popular spellings.
By the 1900s, the entire world, except the United States, accepted “grey” as the correct spelling. Today, the United States still prefers “gray.” There are many words that are spelled differently in British English versus American English. Britain usually kept the spelling of words in other languages, while American English is mostly based on how words sound.
However, even though gray is the preferred and most popular spelling in American English, grey is still OK to use if you are in the United States. According to Merriam-Webster, it is simply a less common spelling.
Remembering which one
Except for the few exceptions that you have the memorize, there are some tricks you can use to remember the difference between gray and grey. The best option for remembering is to learn that the first letter of America is a and the first letter of England is e. That sounds easy enough, but how does that help you? Well, in America (with an a), you use the spelling that contains the a. In England (with an e), you use the spelling that contains the e. Simple enough.
Now you are fully equipped with all the knowledge you need to feel confident next time you write the word gray or grey. Take a second to consider if it is one of those weird words you have to memorize, if not, just consider your location. In America? Use gray. Anywhere else? Use grey.
You do not need to fear the next time that you send a text or write an email that you will take a 50/50 shot and be embarrassingly wrong. Write with confidence, and you now have the knowledge to back your decision up if someone tries to correct you.