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Theater by any other name would be ... theatre

I read a story recently about an SOU professor earning a Fulbright Scholarship to study theater — or theatre — in Ireland. The writer seemed to alternate between the two spellings and I wondered why. I know both spellings are correct, but it seems like it would make sense to stick with one or the other.

— Louis H., Medford

Ah, Louis, to paraphrase The Bard, "What's in a word? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

It's true that either spelling is correct, but there's a reason for two spellings in our prose — "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't." (Thanks, Will, again.)

You'll note in the story that "theater" was used in references such as the following: "a professor and director of theater arts," "a master’s degree in theater" and "an assistant professor of theater." The alternate form, "theatre," was used in "Master of Theatre Studies Program," "the Journal of American Theatre and Drama" and "Theatre Research International."

The discerning eye will catch the difference. The -er version is standard for common usage, while -re accompanies proper nouns and titles, thus the capital T. The Associated Press Stylebook, which guides journalists in such thought-provoking decisions, says to use "theater," "unless the proper name is Theatre."

So if Joe wants to name his establishment Joe's Theatre, that's how we'll spell it, because business owners get to decide how to spell their companies' names (and authors their book titles and universities their programs). But if we write "Joe attended the theater," we'll use the common spelling.

There's also a trans-Atlantic issue here. Theatre is the preferred spelling in England; theater in the U.S. of A. And while we have quoted a famous Englishman above, we're American to the bone here at Since You Asked Central — which means anytime we try to use "theatre," our pinky finger begins to elevate as a warning sign.

— Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.