Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Something fishy: baited breath

with 3 comments

Shylock and Jessica. Lost between 1939 and 194...
Image via Wikipedia

Or
Shall I bend low and in a bondman’s key,
With bated breath and whispering humbleness, Say this;
‘Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;
You spurn’d me such a day; another time
You call’d me dog; and for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus much moneys’?

That’s Shylock speaking in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, showcasing the first written example of the phrase ‘bated breath’.

‘Bate’ is a shortened form of ‘abate’. However, you will see ‘bated breath’ written wrongly as ‘baited breath’ all over the place. Here are just a few examples:

And for all those minorities who were waiting with baited breath for the constitution to be changed so that they could join, membership remains frozen. (From the UK newspaper, the Guardian online)

The world awaits America’s reaction with baited breath. (From the Mail online).

And finally, here’s an interesting headline from the Sunday Times:

Radio Waves: Gerry McCarthy: Baited breath

It’s interesting because the piece is about fishing. Is it a play on words? If so, it doesn’t really work because the misspelling of ‘bated’ is so widespread. It’s impossible to tell if the headline writer is being clever or not.

Commonly confused words and phrases

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3 Responses

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  1. More on this from the Guardian‘s corrections column:

    Baited breath, which featured in this column’s homophone corner on 24 July, made further appearances in yesterday’s paper. In a football piece, we twice had Aston Villa’s Martin O’Neill waiting “with baited breath” (City refusing to meet asking price for Milner deal, claims O’Neill, 28 July, page 4, Sport). A comment piece mentioned “waiting with baited breath” for a pronouncement by the chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq (Too late, Blix, too late, 28 July, page 30).

    Deborah

    05/08/2010 at 9:37 am

  2. The Grauniad is deteriorating of late, I think. In the online version, at least, they seem to have a whole bunch of youngsters writing – and not very well. Not a patch on what it used to was. 😉

    Ron

    05/08/2010 at 11:57 am

    • Hi, Ron — yes, it used to be much betterer. Always known for its typos, though.

      Deborah

      05/08/2010 at 12:22 pm


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