- Breathe is a verb we use for the process of inhaling and exhaling.
- Breath is a noun that refers to a full cycle of breathing. It can also refer to the air that is inhaled or exhaled.
- Both words can be used in several different ways and are part of many phrases and idioms.
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? Clearly there’s a difference between breath and breathe, a difference that extends beyond that extra “e” that appears at the end of one of them. Breath vs. breathe is a dilemma you shouldn’t be having, so let’s settle it once and for all.
Breath vs. breathe spelling
The difference between breath and breathe is a matter of word class: one of the two is a noun and the other is a verb. It’s also easy to see the connection between them, with the noun being 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 noun and which one is the verb.
The shorter one, breath, is the noun, and the longer one, breathe is the verb. Both have multiple meanings and uses, and are a common component of many idioms.
How to use breath, the noun
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. You can also use breath to refer to a full cycle of breathing. For example, when you’re doing yoga, you might need to hold a pose for five breaths. Breath can also be used when we speak about the air we breathe in and out during the process of breathing.
If you’d like to move away from the literal meaning of the word, you can also use breath when you’re talking about a small amount of something, usually wind. Also, breath is commonly used to signify a pause or rest, as in the phrases “take a breath” or “catch breath.”
How to use breathe, the verb
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 as an intransitive verb. You can also use it to say that something allows free passage or circulation of air. That’s why you might hear someone mention an article of clothing that “breathes.” But wine can also be allowed to breathe, so the verb can also mean that something is exposed to air. Figuratively, you can also use breathe to say that something is alive.
As a transitive verb, “breathe” can be used to say that we use something in breathing – we breathe air, but we don’t breathe water. If you add “in” or “out,” breathe can be synonymous with “inhale” or “exhale.” But you can also say that you breathe life into a party, or that you breathe an air of mystery, so in these senses, you can use breathe as you would “impart” or “have.”
Breath and breathe 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.
Examples of breath and 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
“Press your shoulder blades down and keep your head and neck relaxed. Hold this for 5-10 breaths.”
—The Daily Mail
“Many people find observing their breath flowing in and out is a good way to stay mindful.”
“Hardly a breath of wind: the silence that emphasizes a city’s fate.”
“Canada wildfire: Firefighters catch a breath as rain helps in oil sands fire battle.”
“Children with sickle cell disease may breathe easier when they’re given hydroxyurea…”
“Designers sweat the details to let athletic clothes breathe.”
—The Washington Post
“Allowing a wine to ‘breathe’ is simply a process of exposing it to air for a period of time before serving.”
“Steve has a real feeling for red wine; he lives and breathes red wine.”
“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.”
“Committee member Rebecca Pow, the Conservative MP for Taunton Deane, appeared taken aback by the idea that people could be breathing in plastics.”
“All that hustling to breathe life into Main Street may have been the easy part.”
—The Orange County Register
“The Memorial Day parade in Hamburg breathes an air of mystery.”