Breath vs. Breathe: How to Choose the Right Word

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Breath and breathe are two forms expressing respiration, inhaling and exhaling air into lungs, and also a significant metaphor for life and living. If you can remember that breath is a noun and that breathe is a verb, you shouldn't have any trouble telling these words apart.

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 in and send out from your lungs during respiration. It can also mean a puff of air or scent or a slight breeze from anything, or as a common metaphor for the life or vitality of anything. Figuratively, breath can mean a suggestion or small indication.

How to Use Breathe

In contrast, breathe (rhymes with "seethe," a long e sound and a continuing sound the at the end) is a verb and it means to take air into the lungs and send 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: Hannah drew a deep breath, we say, meaning that she inhaled once but also that she was gathering her thoughts in order to say or do something important or difficult. Your breath might smell of onions, if you don't brush your teeth after lunch. Use the noun breath to talk about the environment: "I need a breath of fresh air" or "There is a breath of spring today." Holding your breath underwater is an important part of learning to swim; and a person with bated breath waits with fear or suspense for what will happen next. 

Breathe is the modern form of brethen, which was the verb form of bræth. A person who has had bated breath, breathes a sigh of relief when the suspense is lifted. Don't breathe a word! we say when we tell our friends to keep a secret. Breathe in that wonderful spring scent! And, "As long as I breathe, I'll love bagpipes" is something that only a very very few people have ever said.

How to Remember the Difference

Breathing, human respiration, is something we all do between 12 and 30 times a minute, so perhaps it is not surprising that it is so often used as a metaphor for life and living. Choose breath, which ends abruptly, when you need a noun, a single inhalation or a metaphor for "life." Choose breathe, which has a sound that continues comparatively longer, when you need a verb, the action of respiration, and a metaphor for "to live." I breathe, therefore I am.