Spelling Tips: Baited Breath or Bated Breath?

Bated Breath or Baited Breath?

Given how popular the Harry Potter books were, you’d have thought J.K. Rowling – or her publishers – could afford a proofreader. Yet, on publication, Prisoner of Azkaban contained a passage that read:

The whole common room listened with baited breath.

Did you spot the error there? If not, check out our guide to the difference between ‘bated’ and ‘baited’ below. Once you can tell these words apart, you will be able to use this commonly misspelled phrase with confidence.

Baited (Loaded with Bait)

The word ‘bait’ can be used as either a noun or a verb. As a noun, it refers to something used to lure an animal or persuade someone to do something:

We used cheese as bait in the trap.

He took the bait when we made a compensation offer.

As a verb, it can either mean ‘load with bait’ or ‘intentionally anger’:

We baited the hook with a worm.

Bear baiting has been banned since 1835.

However, the way ‘baited’ is used in the sentence from Harry Potter is as an adjective. And while this is unusual, it means ‘loaded with bait’:

The offer seemed to good to be true, like a baited hook.

So, if we were to take J. K. Rowling literally, we’d have to assume that the common room was listening with breath that would attract fish. Now, we know Hogwarts is a magical place. But we’re not sure that mystical halitosis is the answer here. Let’s instead take a look at the word ‘bated’.

Bated (Anxious or Excited)

‘Bated’ is an adjective meaning ‘in an excited or anxious way’. Its first recorded use is in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene III:

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’?

The idea here is to conjure the image of someone breathing excitedly in anticipation, which is still how we use the phrase ‘bated breath’ today.

In fact, in modern English, you are unlikely to ever see the word ‘bated’ used other than in the phrase ‘bated breath’. Consequently, as long as you can remember this phrase, you will know when to use the term ‘bated’.

Summary: Baited Breath or Bated Breath?

Although the terms ‘baited’ and ‘bated’ sound the same, they have very different meanings. Remember:

  • As an adjective, baited means ‘loaded with bait to lure an animal’. It is also the past tense of the verb ‘bait’, which can mean either ‘use a lure’ or ‘taunt’.
  • Bated means ‘in an anxious or excited way’. In modern English, this word only commonly appears in the phrase bated breath.

So if you’re talking about waiting excitedly, the correct spelling will be ‘bated’. But in other situations, such as luring an animal or deliberately angering someone, you will need ‘baited’. And if you’d like to go one step further than J.K. Rowling’s publishers and have a professional check your writing for spelling errors, feel free to send us a document today.

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