A post by Krista Beckman, PAA Assistant Producer.
Among the ambiguities in spelling that have arisen during the evolution of the English language, perhaps few are as hotly contested as the “theater”/“theatre” pairing. The spelling entry for these words on the Grammarist website is followed by a long comments section full of insults and sarcasm, all somehow in defense of one spelling or the other. As much fun as it is to argue about usage and spelling, the simple truth is that the difference between the two spellings is not of critical importance for the typical English speaker; both are correct. Below, we’ll explore some interesting differences between journalistic and colloquial usage.
According to a study that examined spellings of the word throughout more than 40 American online news and cultural publications, “theater” is overwhelmingly preferred in American English journalism to designate both the dramatic arts and performance or film screening venues (for this study and more information on the issue, visit www.grammarist.com/spelling/theater-theatre). For example, in examining the phrase “theater critic” (which designates the art form as a concept), the study found that “theater” was used 260 of 263 times, or about 98.8% of the time. The other usage – to describe physical buildings – is demonstrated by the finding that the word was spelled “theatres” only about 200 of 8700 times, or less than 3% of the time (interestingly, however, “theatre” appears in the older proper names of many American theater buildings and associations).
While the study confirms the standard spelling of “theater” in American journalism, its colloquial usage is less well-defined. On its “American and British English spelling differences” page, Wikipedia notes that, though “theater” accounts for 80% of all common American usage, drama professionals often personally make use of the “theatre” spelling when referring to the dramatic arts. A quick, informal survey of our PAA professionals revealed the same to be true: our teachers of acting prefer to use “theater” when referring to the building and “theatre” in reference to the art form.
So, what does this mean for you, casual reader? The essence is this: if you care to make a distinction between the two spellings, remember that many of the pros use “theater” to refer to a performing arts facility and reserve “theatre” for the art form itself. However, if you have any doubt or prefer to keep track of just one spelling, always use “theater.” You’ll be correct and in good company.