Fifty Shades of…something between black and white

If you haven’t at least heard of Fifty Shades of Grey by now, you’ve got a pretty secure bunker. If the concept of an Internet meme hadn’t already existed, this book might have spawned it.

I have no opinion on the book or any rumored upcoming film versions (at least not that I’m willing to share), but it’s worth making a quick comment on the choice of spelling for “grey” in the title. I’ve seen this title written both ways (grey and gray), and while dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of Internet posters have expressed their opinions and poured out their expertise on the topic already, I thought it would be light summer reading for you (and an easy way for me to warm back up to these posts after a few weeks off) if I contributed my two cents.

First, let’s be correct. The title is Fifty Shades of Grey, with an “e,” and we should all be aware of that. I’ve seen it written with an “a” (gray) several times, but that’s incorrect. Some (few) folks might have an urge to “correct”  the spelling of grey, but they should resist. There are a few reasons why, all obvious, but let’s touch on three in turn.

For a moment, let’s assume that grey is actually misspelled here. (It’s not, but follow along.) When an author or publisher chooses a title, that’s the title. It doesn’t matter if the title seems to be misspelled (Pet Sematary and Inglourious Basterds come to mind, but it’s easy to find many more examples). Readers must assume that this is the way it was meant to be spelled. Stephen King and Quentin Tarantino had their reasons, whatever they were — plot points, artistic license, and so on — for choosing those spellings. In any case, unless the work was produced from start to finish by careless illiterates, it’s very unlikely that this kind of thing would actually be a mistake. It doesn’t need our correction.

A second obvious reason to support grey as correct is the difference between British English and American English. On the American side of the Atlantic, gray is the typically accepted spelling, while in the UK grey takes precedence.

This is a very interesting case, actually, because while some differences between American and British words (cookie vs. biscuit; chips vs. crisps) and spellings (color vs. colour; labor vs. labour) are well-documented and well-accepted, the spelling difference of gray and grey is much more ambiguous. It’s rare that a word that’s metaphorically all about ambiguity also has such an ambiguous aura; gray and grey might be unique here, actually. Some on the Internet have tried to be firm in their prescriptivism about this (here’s a good example, and amusing, too, in that they’re shilling for a service that takes advantage of misspellings in web searches); but most recognize both spellings as acceptable variants in both British and American English.

The OED, in fact, covers both spellings in a single entry. It also includes a very unusual (for OED) note discussing the variation, suggesting that this is a spelling that’s generated controversy inside and outside their Oxford confines. Interestingly enough, grey rose to prominence despite (because of?) gray being the spelling preferred by most English authorities (including Samuel Johnson) for several centuries. In 1893, The Times (the one in London, of course) stated that gray was the only spelling it used. If Internet data sources are to be trusted, English writers were ambivalent through most of the 19th century, although the American/British conventions of gray/grey seemed to start taking hold by no later than 1840.

Among our trusted style guides, Chicago makes no explicit suggestion (at least that I’ve found). Garner notes the American English/British English distinction, adding that “both are old, and neither is incorrect” (GMAU, 401). AP Style, terse as ever, notes simply “gray Not grey” (AP, 124). To be complete, Merriam-Webster and American Heritage both spell it gray and note the variant spelling (grey) with effectively no commentary.

In the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, there’s a third perfectly good reason to have no argument with the spelling. One of the main characters in the book is named Christian Grey. If that already wasn’t enough ambiguity for you (‘what?’ you say incredulously, ‘a possibly satirical character name poking fun at religion?’), the use of the name in the title takes it even further. It’s got a much better ring to it than Fifty Shades of Christian (although you’ve got to admit that this variation might have brought just as much attention to the book, only from different quarters and for very different reasons).


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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One Response to Fifty Shades of…something between black and white

  1. Pingback: Graphene and Silicene: two cool words for two cool materials | thebettereditor

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