Breath vs. breathe?

The word breathe is a verb (“to breathe“) that describes the act of respiration, where living organisms inhale and exhale air through the lungs. The term breath is a noun that describes the product of respiration, the air that’s inhaled and exhaled.

Your writing, at its best

Compose bold, clear, mistake-free writing with Grammarly's AI-powered writing assistant

What’s the difference between breath and breathe?

If somebody said, “I thought my train my think,” you’d be quick to say, “don’t you mean, ‘your train of thought?’” Terms like think vs. thought are exactly like breath vs. breathe. While commonly confused words like breathe vs. breath share related meanings, one term is an object, and the other is an action. 

The word breath is a noun that’s defined as the air we inhale and exhale during respiration, but the term “respiration” is actually just a fancy way of saying the other confusing word: breathe. The word breathe is a verb, so it’s an action as opposed to a thing–– like breath

Another major difference between breath and breathe is that each word is pronounced very differently. For example: 

  • The noun breath is pronounced like “breth” with a short e sound similar to words like “death” or “meth.”
  • The verb breathe is pronounced as “breeth,” and contains a long e sound similar to words like “seethe,” “teethe,” or “wreathe.” 

Counting vowels is another common mistake many students make while learning breathe vs. breath. Counting vowels helps for memorizing words like loath vs. loathes, but it doesn’t help here. Since we spell the noun as “breathes” after pronouns like he, she, or it, either “breathes” or “breathe” contain an extra letter e. 

The best way to remember the difference between breath and breathe is to understand they mean scientifically before their grammatical functions. This way, we can understand how drastically different they are as a verb or a noun.

Respiration is breathing, air is breath

Respiration is an essential process for all living organisms to produce cellular energy. The verb breathe represents the act of respiration that’s specific to mammals because their cellular energy derives from oxygen.

Mammalian respiratory systems consist of lungs, a diaphragm, internal airways, blood cells, and muscles, which allow them to inhale and exhale air through their mouth and nose and into their lungs. Inhalation is the process of “breathing in” air to the lungs, while exhalation is the act of “breathing out” air from the lungs. 

The air inhaled into the lungs is absorbed by tiny, grape-like structures called alveoli. When you breathe in, the alveolar sacs expand to collect air and deposit oxygen into your circulatory system. While this occurs, alveoli simultaneously exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide. When you breathe out, carbon dioxide exits the lungs through your breath. Thus, the air is “breath,” and respiration is “to breathe.”

Does air breathe?

The easiest way to confuse breath and breathe is to misunderstand their non-literal interpretations. Because the terms both involve air, the vital essence of human survival, people have always related air to concepts in a metaphorical manner. 

As you will find in the definitions and phrases containing breathe or breath, the English Language utilizes these terms to describe the spirit, life, death, fragrance, speech, or even athletic apparel. The key is to understand how breath and breathe come full circle to the topic of respiration and how they perform as a noun vs. a verb. 

Where do the words breath and breathe come from?

The noun breath entered the English Language before the 12th century and nearly two centuries before the verb breathe. The word breath comes from Middle English ‘breth,’ which derived Old English brǣth for ‘smell’ or ‘scent.’ Breathe derives from the terms breth (breath) and the Middle English term brethen, which translates to ‘exhale’ and ‘steam.’ 

What does breath mean?

The word breath is a noun, and it’s defined as the air inhaled or exhaled through the lungs. Examples of breath in a sentence include,

“When it’s cold outside, you can see your breath.”
“If you dive into the water, be sure to hold your breath.” 

We can also use the noun breath to encompass the act of breathing in its entirety. In this case, the word breath is also synonymous with rest or a “time-out.” 

For example, 

“After sprinting, I jog to catch my breath.” 
“Let’s stop and take a deep breath.” 

Outside of the literal meaning of breath, we also define the noun through metaphorical interpretations to describe air, fragrance, and life. For example,

1. A gentle breeze, waft, or zephyr. 

Ex.: “A wisp of spring breath raised the garden to life once again.”

2. A small suggestion, hint, or imperceivable sign.

Ex.: “He admitted his crimes without a breath of remorse.”

3. A barely perceived utterance, murmur, or pouty sigh. 

Ex.: “What is that you said under your breath?”
“It’s all breath when she gets upset.”

4. A life force, spirit, vitality, or animation. 

Ex.: “Take in the breath and let it nurture your soul.”

Synonyms

Break, breather, a gulp of air, inhalation, interruption, inspiration, lull, pause, recess. 

Antonyms

Continuation, extension. 

What does breathe mean?

The word breathe is a verb that describes the act of respiration: inhaling air to and exhaling air from the lungs. The present participle of “to breathe” is “breathing” while the past participle is “breathed.” 

Example sentences include,

“Humans need oxygen in the air to breathe.”
“I’m struggling to breathe.”
“You breathe loudly.”
“We were breathing in the fresh air.”

Similar to what we saw with the noun breath, we can use the verb breathe to metaphorically describe actions involving air, life, fragrance, and more. Here are several alternate definitions for “breathe” with example sentences:

1. To gently blow air like a whisper or sigh. 

Ex.: “The wind breathed under the loose hanging photos.” 

2. To live, have life, or be alive.

Ex.: “We are still breathing despite all odds.”

3. To smell the air around you. 

Ex: “We love to breathe in the smell of clean laundry.”

4. Pausing to rest.

Ex.: “She needs a moment to breathe.”

5. Feeling free of entrapment or restraint.

Ex.: “They’re too possessive. I need space to breathe.”

6. To become perceptible or appreciable. 

Ex.: “He paints with a passion that breathes.”

7. To be devoted to a task or effort over time. 

Ex.: “They eat and breathe literature.”

8. To express or utter words in a breathless, purr-like manner. 

Ex.: ‘“My name is Marilyn Monroe,” she breathed.’ 

9. To manifest, reveal, or become indicative of something. 

Ex.: “The dating app breathes loneliness.”

10. To cool air on the skin by allowing the passage of air, sweat, or vapor through porous fabrics.

Ex.: “You need athletic clothes that allow your skin to breathe.” 

11. To expose wine to air so that flavor and fragrance can develop. 

Ex.: “After opening red wine, you must allow it to breathe.”

Synonyms of breathe

Blow out, draw, expire, gasp, huff, inspire, puff, respire, yawn. 

Antonyms of breathe

Asphyxiate, choke, gag, smother, suffocate, stifle, strangle.

Common phrases for breath vs. breathe

In addition to having significant differences in scientific meanings, we use words like breath and breathe for several phrases or idioms. 

The noun breath is found in common phrases such as:

  • “Breath of fresh air”: A refreshing or well-received change.
  • “Save your breath”: Stop talking. 
  • “Don’t waste your breath”: Don’t waste your time talking to someone. 
  • “Don’t hold your breath”: Don’t rely on something to happen. 
  • “Under one’s breath”: To say something inaudibly. 
  • “One’s last breath”: The final breath before death or the last moment of life.

In contrast, we use the verb breathe for the following common phrases: 

  • “Breathe down somebody’s neck”: To watch closely or micromanage.
  • “Breathe easy/freely”: To experience relief from pressure or stress.
  • “Breathe a sigh of relief”: To loudly exhale in a relieved way.
  • “Breathe new life into”: To rejuvenate or reinvigorate.
  • “Don’t breathe a word”: To keep something secret.

How to use breath in a sentence?

When it comes to writing, we can use the noun breath in several creative or literal ways. American writer Sylvia Plath once incorporated the noun within a famous line from the 1963 novel The Bell Jar

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”

But no matter how we use the word breath, we must write it as a noun (i.e., a person, place, or thing) and not a verb. Additional examples containing the correct use of breath include:

Everyone has morning breath when they wake up.”
“You can smell their breath.”
“She looked so beautiful. She took my breath away.”
“Let’s take a break to catch our breath.”

How to use breathe in a sentence?

Similar to words like run, jump, or talk, the verb breathe describes action and movement. Therefore, the correct way to write breathe is to indicate the action of respiration or the movement of air. For example,

“The air is too thick to breathe.” 
“You can’t breathe underwater.”

We can also write the word breathe as “breathes” for the present tense, but this is only true if “breathes” occurs after pronouns like she, he, or it, not I, you, we, or they.

Correct: “He breathes poorly during the night.”
Incorrect: “You breathes in too much carbon dioxide.”

Additional verb tenses of breathe include breathing and breathed, but each form overlaps past, present, and future tenses. For example, 

Present: “I breathe.”
Present continuous: “I am breathing.” 
Present perfect: “I have breathed.”
Present perfect cont: “I have been breathing.”

Simple past tense: “I breathed.”
Past continuous: “I was breathing.”
Past perfect: “I had breathed.”
Past perfect cont: “I had been breathing.”

Future: “I will breathe.”
Future perfect: “I will have breathed.”
Future continuous: “I will be breathing.”
Future perfect cont: “I will have been breathing.”

Test Yourself!

Think your grammar is like a breath of fresh air? See how well you understand the difference between breath and breath with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. The phrase “breath in” is synonymous with which term?
    a. Exhale
    b. Inhale
    c. Blow
    d. Puff
  2. True or false: breath is the actual air released from our lungs. 
    a. True
    b. False
  3. Which word is pronounced similar to breath?
    a. Grethe
    b. Lethe
    c. Unsheathe
    d. Death
  4. Which word is pronounced similar to breathe?
    a. Creath
    b. Sneath
    c. Teethe
    d. Creath
  5. The word breathes with an “s” is a ____________.
    a. Plural noun
    b. Present tense verb
    c. Plural verb
    d. None of the above

Answers

  1. B
  2. A
  3. D
  4. C
  5. D

Sources

  1. Breath.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020. 
  2. Breath.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  3. Breathe.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020. 
  4. Breathe.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  5. Farabee, M.J. “Respiratory System Principles.” The Respiratory System, Estrella Mountain Community College. 
  6. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Pulmonary alveolus.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., June 25, 2018.
  7. To breathe.” Reverso Conjugation, Reverso-Softissimo, 2019. 
  8. Plath, S (1963). “The Bell Jar.” Full text of “The Bell Jar,” Internet Archive, n.d.