Easily Confused Words: Breath vs. Breathe

Breath and breathe are easily confused words.

The spell-check application of most word processing software programs would not catch a slip-up of these two words. Spell-check is looking for words that aren’t in its dictionary, and words that resemble words in its dictionary but are possibly spelled wrong. Spell-check isn’t perfect. It doesn’t know and can’t guess what word you wanted or what word you meant, it can only judge the words on the page. If you used words that are all spelled correctly, it gives you a pass anyway.

Autocorrect suggests words that start with the same letters. It’s suggesting what word you may want to save time, but quite often, its suggestions are pretty off base. They don’t help you out, but they do make you laugh.

Breath (pronounced “br-eh-thhh”) is a noun. It means the oxygen humans, birds, and land animals pull into our lungs, and exhale as carbon dioxide. Oxygen is more commonly called “air.”

Phrases like  “a breath of fresh air”, “take a breath”, waiting “with baited breath” use this meaning.

Breathe (pronounced “bree-thuh”) is a verb. It means the act of drawing air into one’s lungs, or expelling air from one’s lungs. For example, at the doctor’s office. You, the patient, are asked to “breathe deep for me” when the stethoscope is out, and its listening pad is positioned on your back, or the middle of your chest.

So, in summary, when you breathe, you are taking a breath or expelling a breath to take a new one.

The following story uses both words correctly:

From across the restaurant, Bertha thought she heard someone choking. She got up from her seat, hurried over, and asked, “Can you breathe?” The man nodded no. She asked him to stand up slightly and she performed the Heimlich maneuver. A piece of food flew out of his mouth. She asked, “Can you take a breath now?” He turned and said, “Yes, thank you.”

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