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What is the Difference Between Theater and Theatre?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon990898 — On May 14, 2015

English and American are not the same language. The American language is over fifty percent every language on the planet, bastardized plus English which has also been morphed to serve or own purposes from political to the ridiculous.

Being a free country, if a person wishes to choose an older form of spelling, it is their choice. However, I was taught at American university theatre and only theatre -- no theater except as a spelling mistake.

By anon989481 — On Mar 08, 2015

If 'theatre' and 'theater' mean two different things, then how many centimeters off is one 'meter' from one 'meter'? How many milliliters of difference are there between a 'litre' and a 'liter'? How far away is the 'center' of a circle from the 'center'?

Lots of words have the -re/-er UK/US spelling difference. But nobody thinks any other pairs have different meanings. No difference (I graduated from a theatRE program run by the XXX XXX CentER--'theatre' was the house style, but neither would have been marked as misspelled).

By anon321056 — On Feb 20, 2013

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

By anon298076 — On Oct 18, 2012

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.

By anon209205 — On Aug 25, 2011

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.

By anon201779 — On Aug 01, 2011

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!

By anon180670 — On May 27, 2011

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".

By anon148961 — On Feb 03, 2011

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.

By anon143305 — On Jan 15, 2011

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'.

By anon142763 — On Jan 13, 2011

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.

By anon129265 — On Nov 22, 2010

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

By anon120284 — On Oct 20, 2010

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.

By anon110233 — On Sep 11, 2010

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'.

By anon90517 — On Jun 16, 2010

"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.

By anon74270 — On Apr 01, 2010

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

I use 'theater' to refer to the building.

By anon73551 — On Mar 28, 2010

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

By anon71943 — On Mar 20, 2010

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".

By anon57621 — On Dec 25, 2009

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

By anon54486 — On Nov 30, 2009

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

By anon51960 — On Nov 10, 2009

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.

By anon50846 — On Nov 01, 2009

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

By anon49300 — On Oct 19, 2009

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!

By anon49158 — On Oct 18, 2009

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.

By anon48930 — On Oct 15, 2009

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

By anon46286 — On Sep 24, 2009

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.

By anon45842 — On Sep 20, 2009

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.

By anon39991 — On Aug 05, 2009

Theatre is the artform, theater is the building.

By anon34516 — On Jun 23, 2009

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.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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