This is an error that I see a lot of writers make. And not just novice writers; I’m often surprised at how frequently this one crops up in the work of experienced and even published authors. Unlike between and among, which we discussed here, the problem here isn’t that authors don’t know the distinction between the two words; practically no one confuses breath and breathe when they’re speaking, after all, so it’s clear that we know the difference between the two words. The problem is simply remembering which word is which in our writing. So, let’s distinguish them:
Breath \’breth\ noun: the air that you inhale and exhale from your lungs when breathing. (She took my breath away.)
Breathe \’brēth\ verb: to move air into and out of your lungs; to inhale and exhale. (It’s so stuffy in here that I can’t breathe.)
Now, if you don’t know how to read the phonetic spelling of the words, that’s okay—I can never remember how to read those, either. But when you saw that breath is a noun, that it is a thing rather than an action, you probably immediately knew that it was pronounced with an eh sound and a fully-voiced th, like “Beth” with an R thrown in. Likewise, when you saw that breathe is a verb, you knew that it is pronounced with a long ee sound and an unvoiced th. This is because, as I said before, everyone knows how to use these words already, we just need to remember which is which in writing.
So, how to remember? I recommend either of these two options:
- Verb has an E in it, so it matches up with breathe, which has an extra E at the end. Noun does not have an E in it, so it matches up with breath, which has no E at the end.
- Breathe has two Es, so it gets the longer ee sound; breath has only one E, so it gets the shorter eh sound.