Gray and grey are variant spellings of the same word, the color that’s a mix of black and white.
The original spelling of the color in English is grey, and it still dominates in most parts of the world. For gray, we can thank Noah Webster (1758–1843), an American lexicographer and dictionary author. Many US English spellings differ from those of other English variants because he was trying to do Americans a favor—to eliminate extra letters and spell words closer to the way they sound.
Regardless of which English variant you’re writing in, staying consistent in spelling and other writing conventions will help you avoid confusing your readers. A tool like QuillBot—with a Grammar Checker that checks your writing in US, UK, Canadian, and Australian English—is often just what you need.
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To learn more about the difference between grey and gray, keep reading. We’ll look at the origins of the two words, who typically uses each one, and when you can be flexible about their use.
Gray vs. grey: Spelling and usage
The difference between gray and grey is purely in their spellings; there’s no difference in meaning at all. Around 1901, a scholar tried to promote gray as a mix of white and blue, and grey as a mix of white and black, but it never caught on.
Gray is the most common spelling in the US and in countries that teach US English, such as those in South America and East Asia. However, grey is more common in every other native English-speaking country around the globe: the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa. It’s also preferred in countries that teach UK English, such as India and those throughout Europe.
In all of these countries, some people use the less popular spelling, and it’s not an error, just less popular.
Grey originated from Old English græg, which came from proto-Germanic grewa. According to The Dictionary of Color by Aloys John Maerz and Morris Rea Paul, it first appeared as a color name in English in 700 CE. Though the alternate spelling gray was in use before he created his dictionary, Noah Webster made it popular in the United States. In this article, we’ll use gray as the default spelling.
The word originated simply as a name for a group of colors. But over time it has developed new meanings as a noun and evolved into an adjective and verb as well:
- Gray (n):
- a color shade between black and white, or made by combining black and white, or by combining equal parts yellow, magenta, and cyan
- a being or object that is gray
- Gray (adj):
- having a color shade between black and white or combining black and white
- dull in color
- having gray hair
- lacking in brightness or interest
- Gray (v):
- to turn gray
- to age
Shades and meanings of gray/grey
Gray comes in many shades, some of which have more specific names: slate gray, cadet gray, charcoal, gunmetal, silver, and so on. You can use either spelling to describe all of these, though in some contexts, using the more specific term can enhance clarity or interest.
We often associate colors with certain feelings, and these associations can lead to new meanings. The following are some ideas that many of us link to gray:
- A soothing or restful setting – Gray resembles a dark room, like a bedroom in the evening. It’s a cool color rather than a warm one, so it’s associated with low energy.
- Stability – Gray is a common color of rocks and clouds. We associate rocks with durability and stability, and colors we find in nature often have a calming effect.
- Maturity – As people age (and, we assume, gain wisdom), their hair usually turns gray.
- Sadness – Cloudy or rainy days tend to have a gray pallor due to lack of sunlight, which we typically connect with happiness.
- Dullness – Gray is a neutral color that’s not as vibrant as the colors of the rainbow, so it’s sometimes seen as boring, devoid of excitement, or unemotional.
- Uncertainty or neutrality – We think of black and white as clear and well defined, while shades of gray fall somewhere in the middle.
As a result, gray has developed some meanings beyond a simple color descriptor. If we say it’s “a gray day,” we might not be talking about cloudiness but about a sad day, such as the day of a funeral. Or we might refer to a dilemma as a “gray area,” meaning there is no objectively correct choice, so the best direction is not clear.
These kinds of meanings, as well as the color itself, appear not only in everyday life but also in academic settings and on the job. Here are some examples:
- Design and computer science – Grayscale is the term encompassing black, white, and all the various shades in between.
- Medicine – White and gray matter are types of brain tissue.
- History – Confederate soldiers who fought in the US Civil War were called “grays” due to their uniform color.
- Sociology and politics – When people are aging and are not being replaced by more young people, it’s called the “graying” of the population.
In academic writing, it’s usually best to use literal language and commonly understood terms. But in creative writing, you can take a lot more liberty with gray, including the use of figurative language to convey meanings like the ones above.
When to use gray or grey
For generic uses, such as in common nouns, use the spelling that’s most popular among your audience or in your country, as shown in the “Spelling and usage” section above. If you’re following a style guide, you should use the spellings it recommends. This way, you’ll communicate most clearly and not have to worry about distracting your readers.
But for terms that are proper nouns or are derived from proper nouns, it’s important to use the correct spelling. We’ve listed some examples below:
Brand names should always be spelled as the company prescribes:
- Earl Grey (an English tea)
- Grey Poupon (a French mustard)
- Grey Goose (a French vodka)
Animal names vary. Some have definite spellings, and some can be spelled either way:
- gray jay (Canada’s national bird and a source of controversy since Canada uses the grey spelling, recently changed to the Canada jay)
- greyhound (a dog breed)
- African gray/grey parrot (a large bird native to Africa and known for talking)
Names of works should always be spelled as the publisher or producer prescribes:
- Gray’s Anatomy (a medical textbook by Dr. Henry Gray)
- Grey’s Anatomy (a TV show in the US named for the main character)
- The Picture of Dorian Gray (a novel by Oscar Wilde)
- Fifty Shades of Grey (a novel and movie in the US named for a character)
Names of people and words derived from their names should always be spelled as the person spells them. You can see this in some of the titles of works above and in these examples:
- gray (a unit of measurement named after physicist Louis Harold Gray)
- grayanotoxin, Leucothoe grayana, Grayia (a plant substance and plants named after botanist Asa Gray)
- Gray’s Peak (a mountain in Colorado, also named after Asa Gray)
- Grey River (a river in New Zealand named after governor George Grey)
- Greytown (a city in Nicaragua named after governor Charles Edward Grey)
Eliminating gray areas from your writing
To sum up, gray and gray have the same meaning but different spellings because of the variations between English in the US and English in the rest of the world. Gray can be a noun, an adjective, or a verb, and when it’s a name or part of a term derived from a name, you should always spell it as the creator or bearer of the name would.
The rest of the time, you can choose the spelling you prefer. But if your chosen spelling isn’t the most popular one among your audience, it will stand out, and some people will think it’s an error.
If you’re not sure which spelling to use, QuillBot can help. Our Grammar Checker always points out the correct spelling whether you set it to US, UK, Australian, or Canadian English. It’s also great for improving your writing in other ways, such as offering AI suggestions, rephrasing your text without changing the meaning, and creating source citations.
With QuillBot, spelling, punctuation, and vocabulary choices won’t be gray areas.
Why is grey spelled 2 ways?
Grey can also be spelled gray because a lexicographer named Noah Webster created new spellings for many words to simplify English spelling. He thought spelling should be easier and should match the way words sound. He also wanted to differentiate US English from British English out of patriotism.
How do Canadians spell grey?
Though there is some debate, most authoritative sources seem to agree that grey is a more popular spelling than gray in Canada.
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