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What is a "Hare's Breath"?

The term "hare's breath" is a malapropism that derived from "hair's breadth."
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 13 August 2014
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The phrase “hare's breath” is a malapropism which is commonly used by people who mean “a hair's breadth.” While “hare's breath” at least makes sense, other variations of this malapropism, such as “hair's breath,” are totally illogical. The confusion about this phrase reflects a common problem with homophones in the English language: because “hair” and “hare” and “breath” and “breadth” sound so similar, people sometimes mix the words up when they are writing, especially if they have never seen the phrase written out before.

Properly, the term “hair's breadth” is usually used to reference a narrow escape or a closely missed opportunity. The breadth of a hair is indeed quite small, and a hair's breadth between two objects or event would be a very narrow margin. One may also hear phrases like “came within a whisker,” in a variation on a hair's breadth. An example of the correct usage of this phrase is: “we came within a hair's breadth of winning that contract, but the other company underbid us.”

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Some people attempt to defend “a hare's breath” by suggesting that it refers to something which happens very quickly, just like the breath of a rabbit. However, since all of the colloquial uses of this idiom revolve around something which almost happens, rather than something which happens very quickly, this explanation does not hold very much water, and it is probably a backformation intended to justify a common malapropism. Unless one is talking about the breathing habits of hares, “a hare's breath” is incorrect, and a “hare's breadth” would also be incorrect, unless one is using a hare as a unit of measurement, which seems unlikely.

In addition to “hair's breath,” another creative variation on this commonly misspelled idiom is “hair's breathe.” Both of these usages are nonsensical in addition to wrong, unless hair has some hitherto unknown biological properties.

For English language learners, homophones can be especially frustrating, as the existence of multiple words which sound the same but have different meanings and spellings can be very confusing. All of the variations on this idiom sound the same when they are spoken aloud, but they have very different meanings. Slipping up can be viewed as an elementary mistake by an experienced user of English, and it tends to detract from the overall quality of a written communication. Because homophones can be tricky, it is a good idea to ask someone to look over a piece of written material before publishing it or sending it to someone else, to make sure that glaring errors such as “hare's breath” or “hair's breath” do not remain.

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anon304059
Post 4

It is more of a folk etymology than a malapropism, as it is based on a phonological similarity (or homonym) of the words and establishes a semantic connection as well. A malapropism would be just mixing words without any semantic connection (usually longer words from a specialized vocabulary).

fify
Post 3

@burcidi, @alisha-- I agree with both of you. Malapropisms is one of the reasons why I read a lot. The more I read and see how things are spelled, the less room there is for mistakes.

When we use idioms that we've only heard and not read or written, we're bound to make mistakes with spellings and the use of words.

If one thinks about it though, it's so obvious that hare's breath or hair's breath isn't right. I mean hares breathe but what does that have to do with something happening or not happening by a narrow margin? A hair's breath doesn't make sense at all! It all goes down to common sense. We all have access to the internet, it takes a minute to look it up!

discographer
Post 2

@burcidi-- Yesteday, my neighbor who is a real estate agent showed me one of his ads in the paper. It said that the house was a "hare's breath" of the lake! So you're right, this is a malapropism that anyone can make!

My neighbor is a well educated guy and I don't think he has issues with vocab or spelling. I think he made the mistake because this is not an idiom he uses a lot. It's not very common. I've probably heard it being used three or four times in my life.

Is "hair's breadth" a very old idiom? Is it American English based or British English?

burcidi
Post 1

Not just learners of English, but people who speak English since birth make mistakes with this idiom too.

I agree with the article that the problem stems from these words sounding alike. The other issue might be people not being good with vocabulary and spelling. I think we would all agree that our language doesn't have the easiest spelling. There are no spelling rules in English which makes it difficult for young kids.

I think poor vocabulary is another reason. I just asked my cousin who is in middle school what breadth is and she had no idea that it means width. That might be why some refer to it as a hair's breath instead of hair's breadth.

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