You know when it gets really cold outside, and you exhale and see the steam coming out of your mouth? Is it your breath that you’re seeing or is it your breathe? Do we need to breath so we can live, or do we need to breathe? It’s easy to see the difference between breath and breathe: one of the two is a verb and the other is a noun. It’s also easy to see the connection between the verb and the noun: the noun is the product of the action we describe with the verb. But with a difference of only one letter between them, breath and breathe still get mixed up when people are not clear about which one is the verb and which one is the noun.
So let’s remove all doubt. Breath is the noun, and breathe is the verb. Both have multiple meanings and are a common component of many idioms.

Breath and Its Meanings

The literal meaning of the noun breath is tied to the exchange of gasses we commonly refer to as breathing. In that sense, breath can refer to:

  • The process of breathing in general, or the ability to breathe:
  • “I realized as I watched him fight for breath, that his life was as important to him as mine is to me.” The Huffington Post

  • A full cycle of breathing (breathing in and breathing out)
  • “Press your shoulder blades down and keep your head and neck relaxed. Hold this for 5-10 breaths.” The Daily Mail

  • The air we inhale and exhale while breathing:
  • “Many people find observing their breath flowing in and out is a good way to stay mindful.” BBC
    Moving away from its literal meaning, “breath” can also refer to:

  • A small amount of something, usually wind:
  • “Hardly a breath of wind: the silence that emphasizes a city’s fate.” The Independent

  • A pause or a rest:
  • “Canada wildfire: Firefighters catch a breath as rain helps in oil sands fire battle.” ABC

Breathe and Its Meanings

Breathing is a process by which we take air into our lungs, get oxygen from it, and expel carbon dioxide back into our surroundings. At least, that’s one of the ways the verb “breathe” can be used:
“Children with sickle cell disease may breathe easier when they’re given hydroxyurea…” WebMD
This is one example of how breathe can be used as an intransitive verb. Other examples include:

  • To allow free passage or circulation of air:
  • “Designers sweat the details to let athletic clothes breathe.” The Washington Post

  • To expose something to air:
  • “Allowing a wine to ‘breathe’ is simply a process of exposing it to air for a period of time before serving.” Total Wine

  • Figuratively, to live:
  • “Steve has a real feeling for red wine; he lives and breathes red wine.” The Australian
    As a transitive verb, “breathe” can be used to denote:

  • To use certain gasses in the process of breathing:
  • “More than 80 percent of people living in urban areas that monitor air pollution breathe air that exceeds WHO air quality limits, according to the report, which was released Thursday.” ThinkProgress

  • To impart as if by breathing:
  • “All that hustling to breathe life into Main Street may have been the easy part.” The Orange County Register

  • To inhale:
  • “Committee member Rebecca Pow, the Conservative MP for Taunton Deane, appeared taken aback by the idea that people could be breathing in plastics.” The Independent

  • To have a certain property:
  • “The Memorial Day parade in Hamburg breathes an air of mystery.” Livingston Daily

    Use in Idioms

    Breath and breathe appear in a number of idioms.
    When you say you need room to breathe, you’re saying you need freedom or more space to do something. When someone is breathing down your neck, either you’re under scrutiny or someone is chasing you and it seems they are catching up to you. When you say you can breathe easily now, you could be saying that you’re feeling relieved.
    To take one’s breath away is to surprise them. When someone says that you shouldn’t hold your breath, it usually means you shouldn’t hope. A breath of fresh air is someone or something that challenges staleness. You can say something under your breath, which means to say it quietly, or do something in the same breath as something else, which means to do it simultaneously.

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