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That damn final "e"

I had barely put up a post today on preserving the loath/loathe distinction when comments began to come in indicating that loath/loathe is merely one example of a widespread problem. The final silent e in English usually changes pronunciation, making the vowel longer, but also changes the meaning.

The result is confusion because of the spelling.

Bath is a noun for soaking oneself in a tub, bathe a verb for taking a bath or (in England) to go swimming. (And yes, some people have a bathe. You can’t stop them.)

Breath is a noun for respiration, breathe a verb for inhaling and exhaling.

Swath is a noun for a strip (coming from the width of the stroke of a scythe), swathe a verb for wrapping up in bandages or a blanket.

I’ve seen all of these confused in text. I haven’t myself seen GreenCaret’s lathe (machine for shaping wood) for lath (thin strip of wood), but I don’t doubt that it has been done.

Now that I’ve opened this gate, further examples may wander in.

Those of you who bear the burden of educating the young might take a moment to explain to them that a final silent e changes everything.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:07 PM | | Comments (7)
        

Comments

Note that "bath" may also legitimately be used for either the water in the tub (or anything analogous), or for the tub itself.

In BrE, where "bathe" means "swim" and the verb for what AmE calls taking a bath is "bath", the noun "bathe" (first recorded in 1827) is unavoidable in distinguishing between taking or having a bath (in a tub) and taking or having a bathe (in a pool, lake, river, or the ocean).

Of course the final "-e" also changes the pronunciation of the "th" from /θ/ to /ð/.

Including, where it follows th, making the preceding consonant voiced

Even in British English, where the verb 'to bath' is common, 'bath / bathe' can be problematic. In the past tense, 'bathed' could be either. The context can reveal which, but doesn't always do so.

I distinctly remember (rural England, early 1960s) being taught about the "magic e" that turns hat into hate, hop into hope, bit into bite, etc etc. Of course this kind of magic is not infallible, but it's pretty handy for a bunch of 8 year olds. Perhaps education is more rational today, and magic has been dispelled.

The "just add silent e" trick was memorably treated on the old Electric Company. So memorably that I can't get the tune out of my head now.

My children were taught that the final E "helps the first vowel say its own name." (Upstate New York, mid-1980s)

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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