No, Australians Don’t Spell Jail With A ‘G’ Any More

No, Australians Don’t Spell Jail With A ‘G’ Any More

Language changes over time, and current usage needs to reflect that to be accurate. There was a time when “gaol” was the accepted spelling in Australia. But that time was 1954, not 2014. Jail is the correct spelling these days.

Picture from Trove

The Macquarie Dictionary maps out this shift neatly:

In general, the spelling of this word has shifted in Australian English from gaol to jail. However, gaol remains fossilised in the names of jails, as Parramatta Gaol, and in some government usage.

From a pronunciation and spelling point of view, the shift is helpful: no other common English words begin with ga- but pronounce the initial sound as a “j”. English spelling is frequently inconsistent, but it is helpful when it does attain consistency.

As the entry points out, the exception is if the name of a specific jail uses the older spelling. It’s Old Dubbo Gaol, not Old Dubbo Jail. Accuracy matters.

Lifehacker’s Mind Your Language column offers bossy advice on improving your writing.


  • 1954? Source please?

    From my personal experience gaol was taught as the correct spelling through the 70’s and 80’s. Anyone in school writing “Jail” would have it marked as incorrect as “American” spelling, (similar to leaving out the letter u in colour, favour etc).

    I think the real change came about with the boom in PC use. The default US spelling settings in microsoft products would generally want to correct it to GOAL (Word will still do it now if your setting is to US English) The easiest get-around was to change to the US spelling.

    • The newspaper article in the image is from 1952 (hence the 1954 date — I was looking to match the end digits). When I was it school in the 1970s and 1980s, “jail” was considerd fine, so experiences clearly vary. I suspect the pressure to switch predates PCs (“Jailhouse Rock”, anyone?) Regardless, jail is clearly the accepted spelling now, which is the main point of the article.

      • I was in school in the 70s and 80s, and was taught “gaol” (and “programme”). We were also told that “program” was correct *specifically* for computer programs. NSW, if that matters.

        Still, even then, *common* use was probably “jail”. It was one of those cases where we were told that common use was incorrect.

        • I was in primary school in the 90’s and I was taught that gaol was an appropriate alternative spelling. How times change in 20 years?

  • Disputing with work colleagues “program” vs “programme”. Australian usage now nearly always the former; the latter persists in UK and NZ. Some extremities: “computer program” nearly everywhere, while “souvenir programme” persists even in Australia. But other uses e.g. “loyalty program”?

  • Aus English is a funny language. With things like this we move towards the US spelling which is further away from the word root, but with words like colour, we move away from the US spelling which is closer to the word root.

    • Which rather proves that linguistic habits have no respect for etymology (so while it’s interesting to know, it’s not a justification for arguing against long-term change)

    • The root of the word ‘colour’ in all forms of English came from the French ‘colour’. The original root is from Proto-Indo-European, ‘kel’. The US chose an interim root in Old Latin (for several reasons) but it can’t be said that one is more correct than the other, nor that one is more true to the etymology than the other.

    • Most languages hav (sic) “funny” aspects. But most alfabetic languages at least hav reliable, logical, sensible spelling systems.

      English – Aus, NZ, US, Indian, whatever – does not. Its unfortunat habit of picking up words from everywhere but not respelling them to fit English norms means that these words generally conform to other language norms that most of us ar not familiar with.

      We ar not experts in other languages, but it should be expected that all of us, the linguistic able and the less able, will become literat in our own language.

      Unfortunatly, at least 20 percent of us in all English-speaking nations fail. Mastering English spelling so that it helps us learn to be literat is a difficult task, not achieved by many.

  • As one who reads a lot, I see the spelling “gaol” still used a lot by the online and print media.

  • gist sounds like J.

    I’ve never seen jail spelt gaol. maybe I have and just didn’t know what it was.

  • Au contraire, this Australian spells it as “Gaol”.
    Australians have never spelt it Gail, so perhaps the heading is correct
    Now do not start on day, month, year.

  • This time around Angus I have to disagree. I base this on the fact that what you claim doesn’t actually match my experience of how large groups of people in this still country spell it.

    Not only do I spell it Gaol most of my friends – personal, business and online – do as well. This may not hold true in the twenty-something groups, but from where I look the use of Gaol is far from archaic.

    I do not intend to change, but then I also refuse to replace whilst with while.

    • Gaol is the only word I can think of where the g is soft (as a j) befor (sic) an a.

      There is a convention/rule that it is soft befor an i or an e (eg, gist, giant, gentle, usage), but there ar exceptions, eg, gift, get, giggle. A similar convention applies to c, soft befor e or i; eg, city, dance, cigar, cease.

  • The day, month, year challenge – easily fixed. All change to yyyymmdd (ISO86001). It’s just so much more sensible. 🙂

  • What a load of bollocks.

    We’re not America, it’s a gaol. and anyone spelling it differently should get a smack over the knuckles with a ruler.

    But in all seriousness, I’m not exactly ‘old’ and I use Gaol, and I would expect that most of my friends and colleagues use gaol. If students are being taught a different spelling then there is a problem.

    • ‘things should be the way I was taught forever and anything else is wrong’.

      I assume you are prepared to be smacked over the knuckles for your hideous mangling of the word ‘ballokes’.

      I also hope you look out for articulated lorries, estate cars and pushchairs while driving. Wouldn’t want to be ‘American’.

  • I spell it gaol. I enjoy spelling it gaol. I’ll continue to spell it gaol. I’m not going to lose much sleep if people spell it jail though.

  • I’m curious, what part of Australia are all you lot saying you spell it gaol from?

    I’m from WA, I read the newspaper everyday here and I always see it spelt as jail. Back when I was in school as well, I can never remember it being taught as gaol, or having to be corrected for spelling it jail.

    • The only time I see ‘gaol’ is either as a proper noun, or where some geriatric that bumbled their way onto the internet is being needlessly verbose in order to sound intelligent in an internet argument.

  • I went to primary school in the 80’s and I clearly remember being taught to write it as ‘jail’. Went to school in Perth (so yeah, yeah, probably a ‘WA’ thing).

  • I always spell it gaol, I have never met any one else who spells it jail… I guess it’s expected as we seem to have became a weird hybrid of British and American.

  • The English language is what Australia uses. Not the USA language.

    The adoption of USA spelling arose from the media and internet. Computers swamped the world when Apple originally introduced computers globally to mainstream society. Automatic spellcheck programs were (and still are) mainly in USA spelling. When the internet became globally accepted, Australia became more dependent upon USA media, USA television shows and USA movies.

    The internet has changed the world insofar as English spelling is concerned. A few years ago, Australian media (and probably many other English speaking countries) agreed to adopt USA spelling in order to eliminate ever increasing editing time.

    On a personal basis, I still use total English spelling in every aspect of daily life. This is despite owning computers ever since my first Apple II. The younger generations of modern society are becoming oblivious to using correct English spelling.

    What worries me, is the difference of actual reality in many USA words and the prospects of duping the uneducated. For example, USA litre is approx. 3.8 litres to a gallon. English version is approx. 4.5 litres to a gallon. USA ounce is approx. 28 grams. English ounce is approx. 32 grams.

    The world standard for gold price is always quoted in USA dollars per ounce, but always related to the English ounce, not the USA ounce. A cunning way of making up to 12 percent extra profit and originally started in America and the Caribbean islands when cutting one eighth of gold off each gold coin, thus the saying “pieces of eight”.

  • This is a great example of how to make readers question the authority and reputation of every article on this site and the site in general, because this conclusion was clearly based on a few google searches and the author has absolutely no authority at all on the matter.

    While gaol, jail and prison are of course all in common use in Australia, often in the media where young copywriters and editors don’t know any better, the official term is gaol. This is what the legal professional, enforcement, courts and gaols all use, and always has been.

    When the Macquarie Dictionary says that usage has shifted, that’s exactly what they’re saying, otherwise they would say that the official spelling had changed. So not only do is this article wrong, but it also shows an inability to comprehend written text.

  • Australians do still use gaol. People all over the world too lazy to think and relying on U.S. spell checkers use the word jail. This is not a positive or something to be proud of, and when we look at modern “journalists” we see their dismal standards have slipped even further now they rely on U.S. spell checkers, and computers that constantly suggest the wrong word for the sentence.

  • 1954? I think youll find gaol has been the correct spelling since about 1760

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