Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

Which is the correct spelling: bated breath or baited breath? They’re both pronounced exactly the same way, but only one is the popular English idiom. The other is essentially a nonsense term that has somehow found its way into nonstandard usage.

Whereas confused pairs like aid and aide actually have two separate and accepted meanings, this is not the case with “bated breath” and “baited breath.” Let’s start with the definition of the idiom. It means that you are anxiously waiting for something, so much so that you are holding your breath because of this elevated level of excitement or enthusiasm.

To better understand whether it is correct to use “with bated breath” or “with baited breath,” it would be useful to explore the root words that serve as the basis for either term.

To bate means to lessen or diminish. Used with an object, it means to restrain in some way. The term has evolved from the original word, “to abate,” which had the same meaning of reducing in amount, degree, or intensity. You may have also seen the negated version in common usage, as in “his progress was left unabated.” This would mean that his progress was unrestrained and left to proceed without restriction, the exact opposite of “bating” his progress.

To bait means to entice or tempt, usually through some type of deception. You might think about when you go fishing and you put bait on your hook to catch that bass or trout. You are baiting the fish into getting ensnared on your hook. It’s a trick that’s meant to attract them.

Now, in thinking about the idiom in question, what makes more sense: to restrain your breath or to entice your breath? The answer is clear.

With bated breath is the correct spelling for the English idiom, even though more and more people are (incorrectly) using with baited breath instead. The exact standards may change over time, but the logical and standard phrase is “with bated breath.”

The inspiration for today’s post came from a recent update I posted on Facebook. One of my readers then questioned whether I should have used “baited” instead of “bated.”

Frozen in the moment, he looked at the object on the table, recognizing that it was filled with possibility. A near infinite number of outcomes lay before him. He knew that by revealing the hidden message, he would be eliminating every other possible conclusion… but it was a task that had to be done. With bated breath, he reached toward the storied object. This was it. This was the moment… The rim must be rolled.

In case you’re not Canadian or you’re not familiar, this was a tongue-in-cheek over-dramatized narrative that I wrote about the “roll up the rim” promotion at Tim Hortons. The rim of the paper coffee cup can be rolled up to reveal a prize. Most of the winners are a free beverage or donut, but you can win an HDTV or a car too… though most rolled rims simply reveal that you should “please play again.”

And yes, that’s the message I got when I rolled up my most recent rim, the one that sparked the brief story posted above.