Gray vs. Grey: How to Choose the Right Word

And the Rules for When Gray Is Not a Color

A gray cloud over gray waters
Gray clouds.

Andre Schoenherr/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. 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.

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.

How to Use "Gray"

The spelling "gray" (with an “a”) is more common in American English, so if you are writing for an American audience, use "gray" when you mean the color (or the radiation measurement—more on that in a moment). In the United States, "gray" appears about 20 times more often than "grey."

How to Use "Grey"

In the United Kingdom and in other variants of English, "grey" is the preferred spelling of the color word—and has always been.

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

Examples

"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 to the aging process, as in, “David’s hair began graying when he was a teenager,” or “The graying of America.”

How to Remember the Difference

Though the use of "gray" and "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. ​

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

Exceptions

When referring to the specific color, "gray" and "grey" are sometimes not used interchangeably. This is typically done in an attempt to separate them 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 often show a range of shades using both "gray" and "grey."

Despite this, "gray" and "grey" describe the same color family, and as commonly used, there is no difference between them. However, there are three distinct grammatical instances in which the “a” and the “e” cannot be mixed:

  • 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 second 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.
  • 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.