Gray or Grey? How to Spell the Color

And the Rules When Gray Is Not a Color

A gray cloud over gray waters
 Getty Images

Gray and grey are both correct spellings of the word for the same neutral or achromatic color, a color “without color,” between black and white — a cloud-covered sky, ashes, or lead. The main distinction between the two spellings is a matter of geographical custom. The spelling gray (with an “a”) is more common in American English, while grey (with an “e”) is more often used in other variants of English.

In the United States, for example, gray appears about 20 times more often than grey, while the ratio of usage is roughly reversed in the United Kingdom, where grey is the preferred spelling.

A simple trick to remember this is that gray is typically used in America, while grey is typically used in England.

Of course, as is usually the case in things grammatical, there are certain exceptions and rules of usage for gray and grey that should be observed.

Gray and Grey Through the Ages

Used for centuries, both gray and grey come from the Old English period word “grǽg” and are related to the Dutch words “grauw” and “grijs” and German word “grau.” The first use of the word grey in reference to a color was recorded in A.D. 700.

Throughout the early 1700s, grey remained the most commonly used spelling in all varieties of English. Around 1825, American writers popularized the use of gray in American English.

Today, while both spellings are commonly used throughout the English-speaking world, the common use of gray in the United States and grey in most other nations has remained constant.

Usage: Noun, Adjective, or Verb

Gray is flexible. When used as a noun, it typically refers to a shade of the color itself, as in, “The walls were painted an ominous shade of gray.” As an adjective, it can describe an object or person as being without interest or character, as in, “They marched onward, as a line of gray, faceless men.” Used as a verb, it can refer the aging process, as in, “David’s began graying as a teenager,” or “The graying of America.”

Can Gray and Grey Always Be Used Interchangeably?

When referring to the specific color, gray and grey are sometimes used interchangeably in both the United States and other English-speaking countries. This is typically done in an attempt to separate gray and grey into different shades or hues, with gray being a simple mixture of black and white, and grey containing a little blue. For example, paint chip sample cards or fabric swatches will often show a range of shades using both gray and grey. Surveys taken in both the United States and the British Isles have indicated that many people incorrectly think gray and grey are different hues.

Despite these beliefs and geographical customs, gray and grey are the same color and as commonly used, there is no difference between them. However, there are some cases in which the “a” and “e” cannot be mixed.

Exceptions to the Rule

Keeping in mind that the geographical difference in the use of gray and grey is a matter of custom and preference and that it is usually acceptable to use the words interchangeably, there are three distinct grammatical instances in which one specific spelling is considered mandatory.

  • In Proper Names: It probably goes without saying, but this is not a gray area. If someone’s last name is “Grey,” it cannot be spelled “Gray.” For example, the popular Earl Grey tea is named after Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl of Grey and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1830 to 1834.
  • The Dog Breed: While it actually has nothing to do with the animal’s color, the dog breed “Greyhound” can never be spelled “Grayhound.” The same is true for the Greyhound bus service company. The dog breed “Greyhound,” by the way, should — like all recognized breeds — always be capitalized.
  • As a Measure of Energy: Last but certainly not least, especially to physicists, is the scientific measure of energy called “the gray.” One gray is equal to about one joule of energy radiated by the ionization of one kilogram of matter. The gray replaced the “rad” as a standard measuring unit of radiation energy in 1975. One gray is equal to 100 rads.

While the use of gray or grey is still often confused and debated, as long as they are used in reference to the color, they can actually be used interchangeably anywhere in the English-speaking world.

So, if you write, “The Queen wore a gray dress,” in London, you might be considered a rebel or a simpleton, but you will not be wrong. ​