Breath vs. Breathe: How to Choose the Right Word

A noun and a verb inspiring inspiration

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"Breath" and "breathe" are words that express the act of respiration—the inhalation and exhalation of atmospheric gasses that are otherwise known as air. They also serve as significant metaphors for life and living and are used in a variety of other ways in addition to playing a central role in several well-known idioms.

How to Use "Breath"

The noun "breath" (rhymes with "Beth," a "short e" sound and an abrupt end in "th") refers to the air that you take into and expel out from your lungs during respiration. It can also mean a puff of air or scent or a slight breeze. Figuratively, "breath" can mean a suggestion or small indication, or it can refer to a brief period of time or a moment of surprise.

How to Use "Breathe"

In contrast, "breathe" (rhymes with "seethe," a "long e" sound and a continuing "the" sound at the end) is a verb and means to take air into and push it back out of your lungs—that is, to inhale and exhale. "Breathe" can also mean to say or utter (something), to blow softly (on something), or to take a brief rest before continuing. 

Examples

"Breath" is the modern version of the Middle English bræth, which meant odor or exhalation to people living in Medieval England. Today "breath" is still a noun.

  • Before she began singing, Hannah drew a deep breath.
  • Your breath might smell of onions right after you eat them.
  • Use the noun "breath" to talk about environmental conditions, as in "There's a breath of spring in the air today."
  • Being able to hold your breath underwater is an important part of learning to swim.

"Breathe" is the modern form of brethen, which was the verb form of bræth. Today "breathe" is still a verb.

  • Late at night, Stevie crept into the baby's room just to hear her breathe.
  • Breathe in that wonderful spring scent!
  • Elizabeth uncorked the bottle of wine and left it on the counter to breathe.
  • "As long as I breathe, I'll love bagpipes" is something that possibly only a few people have ever said.

Common Idioms

There are dozens of idioms used in English for "breath" and "breathe." "Breathing," in the sense of human respiration, is something we do between 12 and 30 times a minute, so perhaps it's not surprising that it's so often used as a metaphor for life and living, surprise, and the release of worry. Here are some of the most common for "breath."

  • Under one's breath: Muttered or spoken in a muted voice or whisper not intended to be heard. 
  • Save your breath or don't hold or waste your breath: Don’t bother or waste your time.
  • A breath of fresh air: Something or someone new or insightful.
  • To take someone’s breath away: To surprise or shock someone. 
  • To catch one's breath: To rest or take a brief break. 
  • With bated breath: Waiting for the resolution of an important issue.

And here are some common idioms for "breathe:"

  • Don't breathe a word: Keep a specific secret. 
  • To breathe down one's neck: To watch another person's actions in an overbearing way, physically stand too close to someone, or to loom, as a deadline.
  • To breathe a sigh of relief: To be grateful for the release of worry at the end of a difficult situation. 
  • To breathe freely: To be free of worry at the end of a difficult situation. 
  • To breathe one's last: To die or pass away.
  • To breathe life into: To reinvigorate or refresh with new ideas.

How to Remember the Difference

  • Choose "breath," which ends abruptly, when you need a noun, a single inhalation, or a metaphor for "life." Choose "breathe," which ends with an "e" and has a sound that continues comparatively longer, when you need a verb, the action of respiration, or a metaphor for "to live."

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