I got roped into a snorkeling excursion by one of my best friends about three years ago while vacationing in Hawaii. (Actually, I was vacationing and she was working, which meant her office paid for the hotel room. It is in one’s best interest to cultivate friendships like this.) I have a very strong, very irrational fear of fish, so this little day-trip adventure was quite an achievement on her part.
Anyway, one of the crew members on the boat had letters tattooed across her rib cage. I spent a lot of the day trying to read it – without making it look like I was staring at her chest – and finally I was able to make it out what it said. It was just one word. Breath.
I remember sitting there puzzling over this. She was, as I learned throughout the boat trip, an experienced diver and snorkeler, very comfortable in the water. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that her tattoo was wrong. Because it seemed to me that in her line of work, and with her clear passion for being underwater, that what she really meant for her tattoo to say was “Breathe.” I didn’t ask her, because it was only a one-day trip, and I’m not that girl who just asks strangers about their tattoos, especially not to say, “Hey there, girl who likes hanging out with poisonous sea creatures, I think your tattoo artist was a dummy. Or maybe you’re the one who spelled it wrong.” Nope, not gonna happen. (It’s possible it was correct. But I really don’t think so…)
Breath vs. Breathe is a common grammatical mistake. I see it written improperly in informal communications all the time (friends’ comments on funny Facebook posts are the worst: “Laughing so hard. Can’t breath!”) But it pops up FAR more than it should in published books as well. It’s not a complicated distinction to make, so I think it’ll be an easy one to remember.
Put very simply, “breath” is a noun (a person, place, or thing), and “breathe” is a verb (a word expressing an action). You have breath in your body. You breathe air in through your nose and mouth. If you’ve run a long distance, you may be out of breath. (Unless you’re me. Because I don’t run. Ever.) If you want to savor a wonderful smell, you breathe it in. (If you have children in diapers, you try to avoid this much of the time.)
That’s all there is to it. Most grammar isn’t difficult; it just requires a moment of thought. No longer a period of time than you need to take a breath.
(Now that I’ve yammered on at you about fish and tattoos, it’s your turn to yammer back at me. What did you like about this post? Hate? What do you want to learn/read/scoff at in a future post? Fill in the comment section below and let me know!)
Originally published January 28, 2014