Theatre vs Theater

The world of dramatic writing is a highly flexible place when it comes to grammar usage and style. Ellipses and italics can be used to indicate anything the playwright wants, and correct sentence structure is far from a requirement for dialogue. But when writing about plays and musicals, people seem to get caught up with one spelling debate in particular: theatre vs. theater. While both versions of this noun can be found in writing from all sides of the Atlantic, you’ll still find people who claim that one or the other is incorrect. It’s time to settle this argument once and for all!

Simply put, both theatre and theater are correct. In the United States, theater is the most commonly accepted form for publishers and mainstream media. Here’s how The Grammarist sees the current situation:

Some Americans do make distinctions—for instance, that a theater is a venue while theatre is an art form, or that a theater is a movie theater while a theatre is a drama venue. There is nothing wrong with making these distinctions, but they are not consistently borne out in general usage… The American preference for theater is a late-20th-century development (though the spelling itself is a centuries-old variant), so it is understandable that some people still resist it, and its newness means that exceptions are very easily found, but in this century the preference is entrenched.

I’ve been a member of the “theater means movies; theatre means live plays,” group for as long as I can remember. The idea came to me when I was acting in a community theatre production of The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 in my early 20s, and the artistic director stormed into rehearsal with a full-fledged rant about how the local newspaper used the more pedestrian -er form of the word. How dare they make a mockery of the art form! But as we have seen, any publication, such as a newspaper, that follows a style guide like AP or Chicago, will always go with the -er form.

Theatre vs. Theater - Which is Correct?
Is this a theatre or a theater? – Photo by Jake Hills on Unsplash

But why the debate? The words are identical when spoken, and no matter how you slice them up, the letters are the same. The question and answer database, WiseGeek, has this to say:

Some people suggest that the difference between theater and theatre in the United States is one of affectation, suggesting that people who use the “-re” spelling are being snobby. Many of the arbiters of American English seem to prefer to use “theater.” The New York Times, for example, has a “Theater Section,” and many national theatrical organizations refer to themselves with “theater,” not “theatre.”

Yes, I’ve personally been guilty of theatre snobbery on many occasions, but I do try to keep it contained to green-room chat and post-show artistic circles. Since I prefer the -re spelling, but still love The New York Times, what does that make me? While you can get away with using either spelling here in the USA, our neighbors in Great Britain are less flexible. Here’s what the website Writing Explained has to say about it:

Theatre is by far the preferred spelling in British English in all senses of the word, plays, buildings, the art form, etc… Clearly, if you are a British writer, or an American writer writing to a British audience, the correct spelling for you is theatre.

For lovers of the dramatic arts in the United Kingdom, it’s absolutely a requirement to use the -re form of the word. But what about everywhere else in the English-speaking world? to the rescue!

If… you reside in an English speaking country other than Europe or America, the spellings you choose are of your choice or preference but stick to whatever you choose throughout your writing.

And there we have have it. Whether you are discussing the location of an actual structure, a performance you loved, or a play script you want to read, knowing the location where the writing will be published will dictate the winner of the theatre vs. theater debate. Consistency is key, so if you are writing for an international audience, simply pick your favorite spelling, and stick with it. Now if we could only settle the argument about where to get drinks after the show.


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