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Language Arts

Breath vs Breathe

In the English language, we find a number of word pairs that are identical except that one of them ends in "th," while the other ends in "the." "Breath" and "breathe" is one example. Let’s find out more about them so that we can have a context in which to understand "breath" and "breathe" in order to differentiate them.

The - th and - the word pairs

These are some other word pairs in English that have this feature:

bath and bathe

breath and breathe

cloth and clothe

lath and lathe

loath and loathe

sheath and sheathe

Let’s examine them more carefully. We’ll go through all the others first, and then you can guess about breath and breathe and see if you’re right.

Bath and Bathe

In US English, bath is a noun and bathe is a transitive verb (one that takes an object) and an intransitive verb (one that makes meaning without an object). Bath comes from the Old English baeth and is pronounced /BATH/, while bathe comes through Middle Engish from the Old English bathian, and is pronounced /BAYTH/. The th in the pronunciation is like the first sound in thin; the th as in the is conveyed by making the th in the pronunciation italic. Generally, the meanings of bathe have to do with immersing something and the meanings of bath have to do with a location or medium in which to bathe.

Note that in British English, bath is the transitive and intransitive verb and bathe is the noun.

Cloth and Clothe

In this pair, cloth is a noun meaning fabric or pliable material, some sorts of which are used to make garments or clothes, and clothe is a transitive verb meaning to put clothes on or make clothes for. Cloth comes from the Old English clath and is pronounced /KLAWTH/. Clothe came into modern English through Middle English clothen from Old English clathian. It is pronounced /KLOHTH/.

Lath and Lathe

This pair is a little different: the noun lath mainly refers to thin strips of wood while lathe is both the noun that names a tool for shaping wood, as well as the verb for using that tool. Lath comes from the Middle English latthe, likely from Old English laett. Lathe also comes through Middle English, but from a different source, possibly Scandinavian.

Loath and Loathe

Loath differs from previous examples both in its part of speech and in its pronunciation. Loath is an adjective, while loathe is a transitive verb. They come from, respectively, Middle English loth and lothen from Old English lath and lathian. Loath means “reluctant,” while loathe means “to dislike.” Loath is pronounced either /LOHTH/ or /LOHTH/, while loathe is pronounced /LOHTH/.

Teeth and Teethe

Teeth is the plural of the noun tooth and refers to the bony structures in our mouths, while teethe is an intransitive verb that means “to acquire one’s first teeth.” Teeth comes through Middle English from Old English toth, while teethe comes from Middle English tethen. Teeth is pronounced /TEETH/ while teethe is pronounced /TEETH/.

Breath and Breathe

Have you made your guess? Let’s see if you’re correct.

Breath is a noun that most often means the air that is inhaled and exhaled by creatures that experience respiration. Breath comes through the Middle English breth from Old English braeth. Breath is pronounced /BREHTH/. Breathe, on the other hand, is a transitive and intransitive verb the main meanings of which relate to the action of taking in and expelling breath. Breathe comes through the Middle English form brethen. It is pronounced /BRETH/. Here are examples of the use of the two words:

She was enormously relieved when she reached the surface of the lake and was able to take a breath.

Fish use their gills to “breathe” underwater.