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Language Arts

Loath vs Loathe (and Loth)



This article defines both "loath" and "loathe." It will also help you distinguish the difference between "loathe" and "loath," so next time you will know whether to use the adjective "loath" or the verb "loathe."

Just because I am loath to support a candidate who doesn’t share my views on the economy doesn’t mean I loathe him! There’s a great deal of difference! Though there is a great deal of difference between the meanings of these two words, they are frequently confused due to the similarity in the pronunciation, spelling, and negative connotations. Let’s look more closely in order to understand the differences between them.

Loath

Loath is an adjective that expresses reluctance or unwillingness. It is usually followed by the infinitive form of the verb, including the particle to, as in these examples:

I am loath to part with the baby cradle that has been in my family for generations.

He was loathe to support such an ill-planned and nebulous project.

The adjective loath has softened over time. It comes into Modern English from the Middle English loth, meaning “displeasing” from the Old English lath, which meant “hateful” or “loathsome,” and you can readily see that the meaning “reluctant” is much weaker. The main pronunciation of loath is /LOTH/ (this is the form of th as in thin, so in this pronunciation rhymes with both). It is also pronounced /LOTH/ (this is the form of th as in they, so in this pronunciation, loath rhymes with clothe) by some, but whether this is because they have confused loath and loathe is unclear (see below for more about pronunciation).

Loth is an alternative spelling of loathe, and is pronounced in both the same ways, with the th as in thin  and with the th as in they.

Loathe

Loathe is a transitive verb (one that takes an object) with consistently stronger meaning than its counterpart loath. It can mean “to dislike intensely,” “to feel disgust for,” “to abhor,” or “to feel hatred for.” Here are several examples of how it is used:

Bertrand and Bernice both loathe the family gatherings at which their Uncle Leopold gets drunk and yanks all the family skeletons out of the closet for the umpteenth time.

Specialists in a field are likely to despise any disparagement of their art, for example, the way some composers loathe elevator music.

Loathe comes into Modern English through the Middle English word lothen, which derives from the Old English word lathian. Unlike loath, it did not lose its intensity over time. Unlike loath, it has no alternative spellings and only a single pronunciation: /LOTH/.

Distinguishing Loath and Loathe Using the th/the Relationship

Notice the pronunciation pattern in the following pairs of words including loath and loathe:

Noun or Adjective            Verb

bath                              bathe

breath                           breathe

cloth                             clothe

loath                             loathe

sheath                           sheathe

sooth                            soothe

wreath                          wreathe

These word pairs exhibit the same sort of pattern that characterizes the pronunciation of loath/loathe. The final sound in the noun or adjective sounds like the first sound in thin. The final sound in the verb sounds like the first sound in they.

So, if you use the forms loath and loathe, you can make the association with these other pairs to help you remember both the part of speech and the pronunciation of the two forms. The verb always ends in e and has an ending sound like th in they. The noun or adjective always ends in th, and has an ending sound like th in thin.

If you pronounce both forms as /LOTH/, then there is no need to distinguish in speech, and you can just use this cue for writing.

If you use the form loth, rather than loath for the adjective, you can still match it up with  loathe and use the same description to remember which is which. If you pronounce loth /LOTH/, then you may also find it helpful to associate it with the rhyming and similarly spelled English word both, pronounced /BOTH/.