Grey vs. Gray: Which is Correct?

Is one of these spellings correct and the other wrong—or is there a gray area? (Or perhaps a grey one?)

One of the earliest things you learn in life, as early as toddlerhood, is your colors. The sky is blue, grass is green, the sun is yellow. It’s also probably one of the first things you learn when studying a foreign language. And yet as basic as colors might seem, there’s one color that, as you’re likely aware, has two different spellings. It’s the color of gloomy clouds and cuddly koala bears: gray. Or is it “grey”? Is “gray” or “grey” actually correct? Or do the two words mean different things, like these words you think are synonyms but aren’t?

What’s the difference between grey and gray?

“Gray” and “grey” are two different ways of spelling the word; neither is technically “right.” There’s no difference in its meanings, and each comes from the same word: the Old English “grǽg.” Throughout the 14th century, examples appear of the word being spelled as both “greye” and “graye” in prominent works of literature, according to Grammarly.

The fundamental difference between “grey” and “gray” is that “gray” is the widely accepted version in American English, and “grey” is widely accepted in British English. As Grammar Girl points out, this is easy to remember, because “A” is for America and “E” is for England. And note that saying one version is “widely accepted” doesn’t mean that the other version is “wrong.” It’s just like any other British/American word distinction: “organise” vs. “organize,” “catalogue” vs. “catalog,” “grey” vs. “gray.” And, of course, the word “color” itself has two different spellings for British and American English, too!

There’s no difference related to the various parts of speech that the word can be. As an adjective (“a gray/grey cat”), a noun (“gray/grey is a nice color for a house”), and a verb (“his hair is starting to gray/grey”), the word can still be spelled either way, and preference depends on location.

Gray or grey: What about names?

Unfortunately, grammar won’t let us off quite that easy. There are some terms or names that have the word “gray” or “grey” in them, where there’s only one correct spelling. For instance, the dog breed, greyhound, is always spelled with an E, never with an A. Earl Grey, as in the tea, always has an E as well. There’s also a type of fish called the grayling, with an A, and a unit of measurement called the gray (not grey) that measures radiation absorption. But when it’s a more general adjective, like “gray wolf” or “gray matter,” either spelling goes. Next, find out 15 of the hardest words to spell in English.

Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.