Q&A: Breath vs breathe

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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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