When I was first informed that my responsibilities as copy editor include producing content for the online copy blog, I was slightly taken aback. I have to actually write something? I signed up to sit at a computer and correct articles, not sit at a computer and write about correcting people! Most of my reservations stemmed from the fact that my writing has never been of a didactic or a pedantic nature, and furthermore, has never before been subjected to public scrutiny. Poor grammar, spelling and punctuation bother me as much as they do the next copy editor, but I hesitate to blatantly draw attention to others’ mistakes in a public setting unless the error is unignorably egregious.
This tendency of mine to “live and let live,” so to speak, in the world of grammatical errors made it difficult for me to find inspiration for this blog post — i.e., to encounter an orthographical or punctuational gaffe so flagrant that it overrides my hesitation to publicly embarrass those responsible for it.
Fortunately, inspiration landed in my mailbox this past week when I received a letter from a good friend of mine who has always shared my ardent — if silent — loathing of these such errors. Throughout high school, I counted on him as one of my few outlets for my grammatical frustrations as together we witnessed our classmates commit endless crimes against the English language, demonstrating with great finesse their inimitable disregard for both differentiation between homonyms and any rules whatsoever regarding the usage of commas.
So imagine my surprise when, upon reading the letter, I discovered that my friend seems to lack an understanding of the difference between the words “breath” and “breathe.” In reference to my short illness at the beginning of this semester, he states, “Not being able to breath is pretty much a foolproof reason to take a break.”
Normally, I would chalk this up to a simple mistake — perhaps he was writing fast and simply forgot to add an “e” at the end of the word — but a page later, he misuses it again: “In the several weeks since I last saw you, I have barely had time to breath.”
“Time to breath”? Surely this is not the same friend who vehemently denounced me as an “uncultured swine” simply because I once misspelled “onomatopoeia.” Fortunately, this particular error fomented within me the wave of inspired displeasure necessary to prompt a disgruntled blog post.
To clarify, “breath” is a noun, while “breathe” is its verb form. You can take a breath, catch your breath, be out of breath or have horrible breath — but what you certainly cannot do is “be able to breath” or “have time to breath,” unfortunately for my friend.
I think this mistake bothers me so much because the two words are pronounced so differently. It seems silly to me that someone may be saying “breathe” in his or her head while writing “breath,” because I have never encountered a word ending in “th” that is pronounced thusly.
It could also, however, be that it came from this particular close friend, and I really enjoy rubbing things like this in his face. Maybe now he’ll forgive me for missing the fourth “o” in “onomatopoeia” that one time. Or at least call it even.
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