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What Is the Difference Between Theater and Theatre?

Speakers of American English use "theater," while speakers of British English spell it "theatre."
A movie theater.
Street performers often engage in theatre.
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The difference between theater and theatre is primarily one of spelling semantics. Speakers of British English are taught to use “theatre,” while speakers of American English usually use “theater.” The “-re” and “-er” difference is common to many other words in British and American English, like sabre/saber, center/centre, and so forth. Like many words which are spelled differently in British and American English, the words are sometimes used interchangeably, especially in America; the spelling “theatre” is more common in the American Northeast.

In some groups in the theatrical community in the US, people differentiate between live performances at a theatre and films displayed in a movie theater. Others choose to use “theatre” to refer to the performing art, while a building is a “theater.” These distinctions are not made by all writers, however, and there is no consistent rule for such usage. Usually people pick one spelling and stick with it.

Linguists often point to the tangled differences between the spellings and usages to illustrate the shifts that the English language has undergone over the centuries. Studies on historical usage of English in America and in Britain seem to suggest that spoken American English is actually closer to the “King's English” spoken when America was first colonized, according to Bill Bryson in Made In America, an exhaustive survey of American English published in 1994. The “-re” and “-er” is only one among many subtle differences between written English in Britain and the United States.

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Many former British colonies retain British spellings for words, so people are more likely to see “theatre” than “theater” outside of the United States. American English may be so distinctly different because of America's relatively early independence, historically. Countries that remained under British control longer than the United States would naturally have continued to use British English, and their use of the language would have evolved with the British English-speaking community due to cultural exchange and formal written communications from the mother country.

Some people suggest that the difference between theater and theatre in the United States is one of affectation, suggesting that people who use the “-re” spelling are being snobby. Many of the arbiters of American English seem to prefer to use “theater.” The New York Times, for example, has a “Theater Section,” and many national theatrical organizations refer to themselves with “theater,” not “theatre.” Ultimately, the choice between spellings is up to the individual writer; they both sound the same, so unless there is a requirement to stick with a specific set of style guidelines, a writer can usually choose whichever version he prefers.

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anon321056
Post 29

It was Noah Webster who listed all of the "er" endings together, thus modernizing and standardizing spelling.

anon298076
Post 28

I was told you could use both spellings, but "theatre" makes more sense to me, and I'm American. I believe the word comes from the Greek word "Theatrum". The "-re" ending makes sense to me because of this.

anon209205
Post 27

My PhD is in Theater Studies (Note "er"). It has nothing to do with the building. Case in point is how and when the term even became standardized in the English speaking world in the early modern period. Early modern England preferred the "er" for the most part: all of Shakespeare's quartos and the Folio spelled it this way, even though English spelling in general had not been standardized. Hamlet's famous "Speak the speech I pray you," monologue uses the word and those early printings spelled it with an "er".

But while Shakespeare's generation spelled it like this, the previous generation fluctuate more. The first playhouse in London to use the word was called "The Theatre," which is where Shakespeare likely sharpened his theatrical teeth, since it belonged to the Burbage family (Shakespeare's partners in the Globe). So there's fodder for both sides.

anon201779
Post 26

Theatre is a borrowed word in the English language, actually French. The British spelling is simply a reflection of this, as with most "re" endings. It's spelled the same as the original word but pronounced differently.

In America this changed, maybe partly the remoteness from Europe and maybe partly to standardise/ standardize the language.

The English language has proved highly versatile and despite a few much overplayed differences, we can all generally understand each other without any real difficulty.

Off topic, I find Australians have done the best job of standardising. Did you know that they don't have regional dialects and accents? Have fun!

anon180670
Post 25

Theatre is the English spelling and the American dilettante spelling (meaning a somewhat-educated American trying to sound sophisticated, but actually too uneducated in linguistics to realize that -re simply is Frenchified English post-William-the-Conqueror) and theater is the American spelling.

If you want to not be a poser (or, poseur...to spell it all French/fancy), and you are American, spell it "theater" whether you are referring to the building or the "art form". The New York Times is right. Be an American; spell American. Don't perpetuate made-up stories about the "art form" vs. "the building".

anon148961
Post 24

It is correct that "theatRE" is the art-form, and "theatER" is the building in the USA, regardless of what the New York Times says. I graduated with a B.S. in Theatre, as in the art form. I do not have a degree in a particular type of building. All theatre degrees which I have heard of or theatre schools are spelled as such because that is the distinction. Casually they are interchangeable but in formal writing or acknowledgement, it does matter.

anon143305
Post 23

I am from Canada, that barren snowy waste, and here too the distinction is blurrily made. My understanding is that for us dramatic eskimos the generally accepted rule is: use 'theater' (ER) _only_ to describe a building or space where *movies* are shown. A 'theatre' (RE) describes a building or space with a stage. 'Theatre' (RE) is also the general art of creating a live performance production. The general art of creating a movie is called 'film'.

anon142763
Post 21

Even though I live in Alabama, I've always used the spelling 'theatre'. It has gotten me a lot of grief over the years because almost everyone spells it the other way, but in all the books I read when I was little, it was spelled with an 're' so I just used that. Then again, all the books I read when I was little (and still read) are from the 1700s to the 1800s.

anon129265
Post 20

I always use theatre for anything relating to a live play, and theater for anything relating to a movie.

anon120284
Post 19

anon 39991 has it right, theatRE refers to the artform (Greek Theatre, Theatre class, I am going to see Theatre in the Park, etc.). ut, theatER has to do with the building(I am going to A theater to see a play, I went to the Irving Berlin Theater). Of course, this only applies to American English (the confused kind). I believe in the motherland, it is always theatRE.

anon110233
Post 18

anon45842 is absolutely right. 'Theatre' (from the French) was standard on both sides of the Atlantic until Webster 'reformed' American spelling in 1806 and changed almost all 're' endings to 're', as with 'centre/center'. He also dropped the 'u' in most 'our' words, like 'labour/labor'.The use of the term to refer to the art is a modern affectation, like 'dance'.

anon90517
Post 16

"It was a wonderful night of Theatre" or "That's what I love about live Theatre."

"Theater" should be used only to describe a building as far as I'm concerned.

anon74270
Post 15

I use 'theatre' when referring to a work or play.

I use 'theater' to refer to the building.

anon73551
Post 14

i would think that more people, in the modern age, use theater. (At least in the U.S.)

anon71943
Post 13

I use "Theater" when speaking about a general place, and "Theatre" when speaking about a specific place. For example: "Let's go to the movie theater today to catch a movie." "I am going to watch a play at the Roy Irving Theatre".

anon57621
Post 12

I am still confused Please help me. Is it the difference between American and British English or the difference between artform and building?

anon54486
Post 10

Yeah. This is a common mistake. I was researching this for about a week for one of my classes. But I found that theatre is the acting/art form of the word. Theater is an actual place where theatre is performed. I hope my comment helped someone out there.

Thank you! :D

anon51960
Post 9

Theatre is the artform, theater is the building, is a common mistake. Both can be used as both. Many people decide to GO by that, and will use Theatre when speaking of the artform, and theater when speaking of a building. But there is no such rule, and the main article is much more correct. Theater is American and Theatre is British. And in the US, we consider both OK, though the American spelling is more common.

anon50846
Post 8

Theatre is the building. Theater is the art form. Not that complicated.

anon49300
Post 7

I have always been confused, especially since I learned how to spell French before learning to spell English, living in the French part of Canada. Centre/center too. They both sound the same, and are used interchangeably. Now I understand the difference. There *is* no difference!

anon49158
Post 6

Yes to no. 2 and no. 3. "Theatre" refers to the process and art form; "theater" denotes the physical space. "These are the facts." Indeed.

anon48930
Post 5

Theatre all the way. Your language came from somewhere else, why do you have to change it. and, it's aluminium, not aluminum.

anon46286
Post 4

The way I differentiate is that I use theatre for stage acting including the building used to house theatrical productions. I use theater to refer to films. I do this for no real reason other than my own personal distinction between the two. If I'm writing to someone and say I'm going to meet them for a movie, I'll say, "I'll see you at the theater." If I'm going to meet them for rehearsals, I'll say, "Meet you at the theatre." Just personal taste, really.

anon45842
Post 3

Fact #1: Theater is spelled with an 'er' in America. It has been that way since Noah Webster, the father of American education, wrote the first American dictionary. Fact #2: If it is a proper name you can spell it however you want. For instance, 'Ye Olde Theatre Shoppe" is correct - if that is indeed the name of the old theater shop in question. Check this in the New York Times theater section if you don't believe me. There is no debate. These are the facts.

anon39991
Post 2

Theatre is the artform, theater is the building.

anon34516
Post 1

I was taught that "theater" was used when referring to the art form (like dance, painting, sculpture, etc.) and "theatre" referred to the physical building.

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