November 28th, 2011

smug, i knew that

Answer: "Theater" vs. "Theatre"

lilmoonbunny16 asked: What is the difference between "theatre" and "theater"?

"I'm doing my homework," Buffy protested. "Do you spell theater 'e-r' or 'r-e'?"

"Ah, yes," Giles sniffed. "The manufactured American dilemma, one of my perennial favorites."

Giles is right: Unless you're an American author or are using American spellings, the answer is that 'theatre' is the correct spelling.

Generally, 'theatre' is used through most of the world. The most plausible difference for the difference in the US I've found is that in the 1820s, Noah Webster (of Webster's dictionary fame) worked to simplify American English spellings by making all 'er'-sounding words consistent in spelling, which meant turning 'theatre' to 'theater.' However, the difference didn't stick (though as noted below, it did with 'color' and 'center'), and now in American English we have the National Theatre of the Deaf as well as the Charles Theater of Baltimore.

There are a few vague, non-binding rules of thumb:
  • Some organizations use 'theatre' as the art form and 'theater' as the building the art is staged in.
  • A movie palace is more likely to be a 'theater' than a venue for live performance (much less the performance itself). I've read theories that theatrical companies held on to 'theatre' in an effort to distinguish themselves from movie houses, but I couldn't find any proof of that.
  • In Canada, India, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia, the word of choice is 'theatre.' Only the Americans tried this 'reform the spelling' idea.

"I'm going to be on Broadway," Rachel declared. "So that's what I wrote my article about."

"Well," Kurt sniffed, "in your enthusiasm you forgot how to spell the name of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre."

Rachel pouted. "I did not! It's got two 'n's, and--"

"'T' and 'e' at the end, not 'e' 'r.'" Kurt snapped his copy of the school newspaper at her.

Rachel's face fell in horror. "That copy editor!"
In general, unless you're not American or are working from a specific style book, you can use whichever spelling feels more comfortable to you. If you're talking about a specific building or theatrical company, look up the official name of the theater (or theatre) you're using to be certain.

Here's an article from Theatre in Chicago that endorses the Webster theory.