breath vs. breathe

What is the difference between breath and breathe?

The best known function of silent E is to mark a change in the sound of a vowel from “short” to “long,” as in the difference between cap (/kæp/) and cape (/kp/).
However, it can also indicate changes in the pronunciation of certain consonant sounds. In the case of breath and breathe, the pronunciation changes from /brɛθ/ (rhyming with death) to /brið/ (rhyming with seethe). In addition to the pronunciation of the vowel digraph EA changing from /ɛ/ to /i/, the consonant digraph TH changes in pronunciation from /θ/ (as in theme) to /ð/ (as in these).
Finally, the silent E at the end of breathe indicates that the word shifts in meaning from a noun to a verb. A breath (noun) is an inhalation of air into the lungs; to breathe (verb) refers to the action of inhaling air into the lungs. For instance:
  • “I stopped playing the saxophone for a minute to take a breath.”
  • “I have to hold my breath every time I drive past the landfill.”
  • “I started feeling very anxious and found it difficult to breathe.”
  • “Throughout the movie, I just couldn’t believe that the characters could somehow breathe on the alien planet.”
Several other pairs of words follow this pattern in which silent E indicates a shift in meaning from a noun to a verb related to that noun, as in bath vs. bathe, cloth vs. clothe, teeth vs. teethe, and wreath vs. wreathe.
Get all volumes of The Farlex Grammar Book in paperback or eBook.
Share Tweet Share

Conversations