Gray, Grey, and Circular Prescriptions

A few days ago John McIntyre took a whack at the Associated Press Stylebook’s penchant for flat assertions, this time regarding the spelling of gray/grey. McIntyre noted that gray certainly is more common in American English but that grey is not a misspelling.

In the comments I mused that perhaps gray is only more common because of prescriptions like this one. John Cowan noted that gray is the main head word in Webster’s 1828 dictionary, with grey cross-referenced to it, saying, “So I think we can take it that “gray” has been the standard AmE spelling long before the AP stylebook, or indeed the AP, were in existence.”

But I don’t think Webster’s dictionary really proves that at all. When confronted with multiple spellings of a word, lexicographers must choose which one to include as the main entry in the dictionary. Webster’s choice of gray over grey may have been entirely arbitrary. Furthermore, considering that he was a crusader for spelling reform, I don’t think we can necessarily take the spellings in his dictionary as evidence of what was more common or standard in American English.

So I headed over to Mark Davies’ Corpus of Historical American English to do a little research. I searched for both gray and grey as adjectives and came up with this. The grey line represents the total number of tokens per million words for both forms.

gray and grey in tokens per million words

Up until about the 1840s, gray and grey were about neck and neck. After that, gray really takes off while grey languishes. Now, I realize that this is a rather cursory survey of their historical distribution, and the earliest data in this corpus predates Webster’s dictionary by only a couple of decades. I don’t know how to explain the growth of gray/grey in the 1800s. But in spite of these problems, it appears that there are some very clear-cut trend lines—gray became overwhelmingly more common, but grey has severely diminished but not quite disappeared from American English.

This ties in nicely with a point I’ve made before: descriptivism and prescriptivism are not entirely separable, and there is considerable interplay between the two. It may be that Webster really was describing the linguistic scene as he saw it, choosing gray because he felt that it was more common, or it may be that his choice of gray was arbitrary or influenced by his personal preferences.

Either way, his decision to describe the word in a particular way apparently led to a prescriptive feedback loop: people chose to use the spelling gray because it was in the dictionary, reinforcing its position as the main entry in the dictionary and leading to its ascendancy over grey and eventually to the AP Stylebook‘s tweet about its preferred status. What may have started as a value-neutral decision by Webster about an utterly inconsequential issue of spelling variability has become an imperative to editors . . . about what is still an utterly inconsequential issue of spelling variability.

Personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for grey.