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.
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