Sign from the Franklin Theatre, Franklin, Tenn.

What’s the difference between a theater and a theatre?

At one city’s convention and visitors bureau, it’s not an academic question.

Recently a computer programmer at the bureau objected to the spelling “Movie Theaters” on the bureau’s website. “Theater is a made-up word,” he told the marketing manager. She explained that they use both spellings, “theatre for performing arts and theater for the place where one views a movie.” The programmer replied with the website of the company that shows most of the movies in town. It proudly proclaimed itself “AAA Theatres.” So it was a standoff, and neither party was convinced.

So who was right? They both were. And neither.

It’s one of those rare words that has two acceptable spellings, and therefore the possibility of assigning different meanings to each. The only problem is, there’s no consensus on which goes with which.

It gets tangled with the larger picture of certain words (mostly nouns) derived from French. American English (prompted long ago by the patriotic lexicographer Noah Webster) calls for -er endings in words like center, meter, fiber, caliber, while British English ends them à la French, with -re.

But it’s not so simple with theat-, the only such word that is accepted (or rejected) in both spellings in the United States. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that even in England, theater was the preferred spelling for several centuries “from c. 1550 to 1700, or later.” But then “between 1720 and 1750, theater was dropped in Britain, but has been retained or (?) [sic] revived in U.S.”

So in the United States nowadays, the -re spelling gives a British colouring to theat-, whatever it designates. And the choice is likely to be a conscious one by the proprietor of the theat- in question, either imparting (or importing) an air of British elegance, with theatre, or down-to-earth American straightforwardness with theater.

Back at the convention and visitor’s bureau, the sales and marketing manager had the smart idea of looking at the Corpus of Global Web-Based English.

In that collection she found that the theatre: theater  ratio of examples from the United States was 6,591: 11,772, while from Britain it was 19,016: 1,701. Which more or less confirms that in the U.S., you have the opportunity to hint to the public what kind of theatrical establishment you’re presenting.

So if you were offering something theatrical, which spelling would you use? And why?




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