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Theatre vs. Theater- What's the Difference?

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How do you spell it - theatre or theater?

Theatre vs. Theater- What's the Difference?

Just ask Eliza Doolittle- the English language can be tricky. Some words consistently confound even the wisest grammar gurus, including one in particular, which fans of Broadway find themselves pondering regularly...

Is it theatre or theater...?

Both words are nouns and in most contexts, mean the same thing. So what's the difference? Answering this simple question involves considering two distinct schools of thought on the subject.

1. American English vs. British English

According to Merriam-Webster, the word 'theater' came to the English language via Middle French (theatre), with roots in Latin (theatrum) and Greek (theatron). The same debate over the spelling of the word existed in England even centuries ago, as the French spelling (-re) fell in and out of fashion.

Francis Hodge wrote more about the word's evolution in 1968's 'Theatre Survey,' explaining that Noah Webster, American reformer of the English language, tried to phase out the -re spelling, along with other words deemed 'too British' in the 1830s. The idea received much pushback even from the American arts community, which at that time, was still largely made up of British artists and craftsmen.

Today, Americans generally favor theatER, while those in the UK (and the rest of the English-speaking world) most often use theatRE.

2. The place vs. the art form

Some Americans take the argument a step further, making the spelling a condition of the definition. A theatER is a venue you visit to enjoy entertainment. The theatRE is a performance-driven art form.

EX: Patti walked to the theater to watch some really great theatre.

The bottom line...

Are both rules adhered to consistently? Definitely not. Generally, the words theatre and theater can be used interchangeably, so pick whichever one feels right to you and on with the show!


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