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What is the difference? Or is there any? Which would be more British English?

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  • 8
    I was once docked points on an elementary school spelling quiz for spelling it grey -- the spelling I was more used to seeing in the books (mostly by British authors) that I read.
    – TJ Ellis
    Nov 22, 2010 at 23:09
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    I have to say... this is a bit of a gray area.
    – Adam
    Feb 21, 2011 at 21:28
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    Does anyone not think that grey has a particular emotional mood than gray doesn't possess? Gray is just a color. Grey on the other hand, has an emotional valence: I'd always prefer to say I was feeling grey to-day or The sky was a dreary shade of grey, over substituting grey's counterpart in its place.
    – Uticensis
    Apr 14, 2011 at 14:01
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    Try using greigh. Dec 13, 2011 at 0:57
  • 2
    Both grey and gray are correct.
    – tchrist
    Mar 19, 2013 at 18:35

7 Answers 7

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The British National Corpus has 5445 cites for grey and 1092 cites for gray. The Corpus of Historical American English, on the other hand, paints the following picture:

alt text

(X axis: year, Y axis: incidences per million words.)

After seeing these stats, it should come as no surprise that Wiktionary marks grey as British, Canadian, and gray as US.

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    Of course, some of those instances will also be proper nouns. Dec 18, 2010 at 3:39
  • 4
    @ShreevatsaR The question is, you thought of Grey's Anatomy or Sasha Grey? Feb 7, 2012 at 0:08
  • I've added an answer that takes into account proper nouns: english.stackexchange.com/a/178758/61410
    – philshem
    Jun 19, 2014 at 12:01
  • What would Zane Gray say about this??
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 27, 2020 at 18:25
58

I grew up in England for chunks of my childhood and early adulthood and am still around people who originated from the UK, so I still encounter both spellings all the time. The easiest way to remember it is that the 'a' in gray stands for 'America' and the 'e' in grey 'England'.

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    I like the mnemonic!
    – John Y
    Dec 19, 2010 at 13:15
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I have found out about Google NGrams. It is really useful for such questions. The gap between the two spellings was important during WWII, then was really narrow, and finally it has been widening since the 1980s.

American English: "grey" vs. "gray" ngram graph British English: "grey" vs. "gray" ngram graph English (cumulative): "grey" vs. "gray" ngram graph

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According to the Associated Press (AP) Styleguide, 'grey' is only used in the word 'greyhound' -- otherwise the appropriate use is always 'gray'. In America, anyway.

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    Except for Gandalf the Grey.
    – TRiG
    Nov 22, 2010 at 18:39
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    @TRiG but he wasn't American :-)
    – Josh
    Nov 22, 2010 at 21:56
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    @Josh Probably would all be speaking the language of Mordor now if he was! ;-)
    – Orbling
    Nov 23, 2010 at 0:38
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    According to Etymology Online, the grey in greyhound has nothing to do with the color: > greyhound - O.E. grighund, from grig- "bitch" + hund "dog" (see hound). The name usually is said to have nothing to do with color, and most are not gray. The O.N. form of the word is preserved in Hjalti's couplet that almost sparked war between pagans and Christians in early Iceland: > Vilkat goð geyja, grey þykkjumk Freyja > I will not blaspheme the gods, but I think Freyja is a bitch
    – AnWulf
    Dec 16, 2011 at 19:09
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    @GEdgar No! Tolkien’s careful choices of spelling and punctuation are unaltered for American audiences. I never spell it gray myself, anywhere. Just looks wrong.
    – tchrist
    Aug 19, 2012 at 14:21
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In addition to the other answers correctly stating that grEy is British English and grAy is American English...

Proper names (capitalized Gray) in British English (red line) account for more than 50% of the instances of the American spelling, Gray.

enter image description here

N-grams link

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"Gray" is generally the American spelling and "grey" the British.

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They're interchangeable. With both spellings available, some people like to assert that they denote slightly different hues. But they don't, consistently.

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