Theater or Theatre?

Which spelling is correct: theater or theatre?

That used to be a simple question. “Theater” is American usage (thanks to Noah Webster, who established the first American spellings back in the 1780s). Americans write “center,” not “centre,” as the British do, and “theater,” not “theatre.”

Except that isn’t true anymore, at least not about “theatre.” I was startled recently to see “theatre” in an article in The New Yorker, which is usually meticulous about copyediting (although I did see “Dumpster” once without its capital D – it’s a trademarked word). Then I saw “theatre” in a comic strip. Then I saw it all over the place.

A friend who’s head of a college theater department explained to me that a “theater” is a building and “theatre” is an art. Or maybe it was the other way around. I couldn’t find those distinctions in any dictionary. But since he’s a professional, he must be on to something.

The New York Times still uses “theater,” the American spelling, unless an organization uses the British spelling. So it’s American Ballet Theatre or Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Tomorrow evening I’m going to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre to see The Book of Mormon. Wednesday afternoon my sister and I are going to the Richard Rodgers Theatre to see Porgy and Bess. Both are in New York.

Bottom line: You can take your pick – just be consistent after you make your choice. I’m sticking with theater, at least for now.

One more comment: On a TV news show recently I was startled to hear an educated person pronounce the word “thee-AY-ter.” She did not make a good impression. Here’s another bottom line: Hang around some educated people and imitate what they do. (Just don’t imitate her.)

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