Q&A: Breath vs breathe

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, it's a breath of fresh air as we breathe easily…

Q: I often see the words “breath” and “breathe” mixed up. Can we discuss?

A: Sure. Nothing sillier than a yoga poster saying “JUST BREATH”. We want people to breathe easy, after all.

Q: Why do they get confused?

A: Well, one is a noun and the other a verb. “Breath” is the noun – the actual cloud that forms on a cold day. You can also “take a breath” or “hold your breath” before you jump in a pool, for example. It’s the actual air that goes in and out of the lungs.

Q: Makes sense.

A: Then we have the verb “breathe” – as in the act of inhaling and exhaling. We breathe in the air around us. When exercising, we breathe heavily.

Q: So, why the confusion?

A: It’s likely caused from seeing other verbs like “talk” become “talked” and “talking” and erroneously thinking that “breathed” and “breathing” therefore come from “breath”. When in fact, they’re from “breathe” – the “e” just gets dropped.

Q: Is this unusual?

A: Not really. Plenty of other words follow a similar pattern. Compare the noun “bath” and verb “bathe” – yet you’d wear a “bathing suit” and pronounce it “bathe-ing” in a similar way to “breathe-ing”.

Q: More examples?

A: Teeth and teethe. Wreath and wreathe. Cloth and clothe.

Q: Loath and loathe?

A: Actually, no. They have completely different meanings – in fact, loath is an adjective. We’ve discussed that one before.

Q: So we have. Hmmm, maybe it’s the way the words are pronounced that is causing the issue here then.

A: Yes, that’s a factor too. After all, “breath” rhymes with “death” and not “wreath”, “heath” or “underneath”.

Q: Because English?

A: Because English.

Q: Ugh.

A: Both these words have been around since the 13th century. They were Old English in origin, with a dash of Germanic, and even though they may look like other words today, they’ve had different journeys to get here. It’s one of the joys of an ever evolving language.

Q: Oh, joyful is it? Hmm. So that’s why don’t we say “deathe” instead of “die”?

A: Yup. Because English.

Q: Alright, so any tips on how to remember the difference?

A: “Breathe” has an E on the end – for exhale. Or just think that it’s the longer word with the longer vowel sound.

Q: Fair enough. Finally, why do we say that someone “draws breath”? It’s not Pictionary.

A: “Draw” is an incredibly busy word – Macquarie Dictionary lists more than SIXTY definitions. One of those is “to inhale” and actually relates to the main meaning of draw – “to pull or drag something” (think “horse-drawn carriage”). Writers often describe someone drawing or dragging on a cigarette; essentially inhaling. “Drawing breath” as a phrase makes more sense then.

Q: Time to draw this one to a close I think.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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