Why is it that "theater" and "theatre" do not follow the traditional rules of British and American spelling? British spellings like "metre" and "centre" are consistently switched to "meter" and "center," respectively, in American spelling, but it seems like "theater" and "theatre" are both used in American spelling. Is there any particular reason why the British spelling is common in America for this one word? In American English, is either "theater" or "theatre" considered more acceptable?

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    'Glamour' is another BrE spelling that still prevails in AmE.
    – Erik Kowal
    Oct 15, 2014 at 21:33
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    As do colour and flavour, among others. All Americans encounter them, along with theatre, but Americans are not taught anything about them except that they're British. They're certainly pronounced identically (allowing for different /r/'s), and spelling is hardly ever adhered to strictly, on either side of the Atlantic. So there is no known reason why whatever you noticed about the distribution of the two spellings should exist; no doubt there is a reason, but we'll never know it. One could conjecture that Theatre appears in many names, and feels classier, because it's British. Oct 15, 2014 at 21:51

4 Answers 4


Britishisms often creep into American English as personal affectations, or because the British spelling is perceived as being more "upscale." In my experience, the "theatre" spelling largely appears in two contexts in AmE: in the names of theaters (dramatic or cinema) that wish to project an upscale vibe, and in writing by devotees of the dramatic arts, who as a group can be a bit... well, "pretentious" is such an ugly word, but there you have it.

We don't exactly have shortages of either theater geeks or social climbing movie houses in the US, so that's probably why the "theatre" spelling seems so common.

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    Britishisms often creep into American English? I thought that's how English arrived there. Google Dictionary gives the etymology: << late Middle English (originally as ‘theatre’), from Old French, or from Latin theatrum, from Greek theatron, from theasthai ‘behold.’ >> It seems that it's 'theater' that's done the creeping in. Probably a Webster adjustment. Oct 15, 2014 at 22:57
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    As a veteran of 30 years in the theatre I resent hell out of this and acknowledge that is entirely correct. :) Oct 15, 2014 at 23:13
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    @ Edwin Ashworth Britishisms can creep into American English after the American English version of the word has already been well established, usually to add either an old-fashioned or a pretentious tone.
    – Nicole
    Dec 15, 2014 at 18:00

Here's a relevant Google Books ngram (click to embiggen and interactivate):


Facts to glean here:

  • For most of the 19th century, "theatre" was pretty much the only spelling used on either side of the Atlantic.
  • "Theater" started out small throughout the second half of the 19th century in American usage with almost no usage at all in Britain.
  • In American usage, "theatre" stayed fairly flat throughout the 20th century, while "theater" usage grew quite a bit. "Theater" only surpassed "theatre" in American usage sometime in the late 1970s.
  • Since the 1980s, "theatre" has been on the decline in American usage.
  • "theater" has been rising in British usage throughout the twentieth century, but usage is still primarily "theatre"
  • Off topic but I will delete this comment asap: Why is it that I never see the colour code/legend at the top of my charts whenever I visit Google Ngrams? For example, I've just clicked on the image and the expressions are all listed on the right hand side. I'm using Chrome browser, is that a factor?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 25, 2014 at 19:31
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    @Mari-LouA change "graph" to "chart" in the URL and you will get a static image, with the legend at the top
    – nohat
    Nov 4, 2014 at 23:21
  • Or vice versa, at least when I click the image on your post. The URL address already contains "chart" when I change it to "graph", only the image of the graph appears on a solid black background. The reverse is true if one opens the Ngram on a new/separate page. A fantastic time-saving tip. Thank you!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 5, 2014 at 9:17
  • That doesn't quite click with my recollections, having lived through half of the 20th Century.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 2, 2014 at 22:22
  • yes, in Middle America it was always 'theater' in the 60s and 70s with only tiny exceptions
    – Oldcat
    Dec 3, 2014 at 1:31

One important difference between a word like "theatre" and a word like "color" is that "theatre" is very often part of a name, and therefore must be spelled however the name is, and should not be "translated." It would be incorrect to standardize the spelling of "theater" in "Goodman Theatre" of Chicago. But do use the American spelling of words that are not formal names: use the "er" spelling in all generic references, such as, "She earned a degree in theater history at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago."

  • On a coach tour, I found myself using two different pronunciations of 'geyser' for 'Old Faithful geyser is probably the most famous geyser in the world.' / John Lawler has pointed out the establishment connection. Nov 4, 2016 at 13:38

In my experience, "theatre" like "programme" (have you seen that?) is used in some formal or more exclusive settings. For example, in attending an original play written by a renown individual in my community, the invite read something like this: "...a special experience in theatre." Upon arrival, the elegant document we received with the acts of the play and credits said, "Programme."

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