May 4, 2012

Fifty Shades of Gray?


Dr. J by Joshua Reynolds                           

A copyeditor, or proofreader, reading the headline above, would need to pause — if he or she has even an average awareness of the flotsam of American culture, the one in which Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James is the bestselling book on the New York Times list. (Ms. James’ other two books are on the list in the 2 and 3 spots.) Is the “gray” of my headline spelled correctly?

Ordinarily, “gray” would pass unnoticed. If you look into it, and by looking into it you will find that it is often looked into, “gray” is the preferred spelling — but only in American English. Fifty Shades of Grey puns on the name of its main character’s name, Christian Grey, but London-based author E.L. James has probably never spelled “grey” any other way.

It wasn’t always so.  Samuel Johnson’s heroic work, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), the first comprehensive dictionary in English, insists, under the entry for “grey,” that the word is “More properly written gray. See Gray.”

According to, which supplies a graph tracing the divergence of American and British usage, “gray became the preferred spelling in American English around 1825″ — by which time “grey” had come to be preferred in Britain.

Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, to which we owe much of the simplification of American orthography (“color” instead of “colour;” “meter” instead of “metre,” etc.) repeats Johnson’s first definition of “gray” word for word:

“White, with a mixture of black.”

As for “Grey” — “[See Gray.]”

In every modern American dictionary that I consulted “grey” is held to be a “variant of gray.” I wonder, though, whether that should change. My necessarily limited experience includes some fifteen years during which my employment has intermittently required me to review copyedited manuscripts. Long before the ascent of E.L. James, I noticed, and observed out loud to nobody in particular, that “grey” is the single-most “frequently challenged” word I encounter. Another way of saying this is that most writers spell “gray” “grey.” And most proofreaders and copyeditors don’t challenge the word — a challenge that would take the form of a query to be answered by the author or editor — they simply mark “grey” as misspelled.

As I often say, Shakespeare couldn’t spell either.


Dan O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Melville House.