Breath of life

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SAMPLE 1: “I look pregnant, people ask when the baby is due, and I sometimes struggle for breathe while exercising.”(We Look Pregnant but we are not Expecting Babies, the Sunday Vanguard, April 30, 2017)

I draw readers’ attention to the word breathe which occurs in the following context: “I sometimes struggle for breathe.” Fairly literate readers should recognize immediately that the word breathe occupies a structural slot that properly belongs to a noun. In other words, any word that is fit to occupy the slot where breathe currently exists should be a noun.

However, the question is: Is breathe a noun? It is definitely not. It is in fact a verb. We have drawn attention repeatedly in this place to the interaction between orthography and grammar, and especially the unpredictable character of the English spelling system. In English, a single letter is often enough to differentiate two words and the classes of the same word.

That is the case with breathe and breath, the former being the verb-form and the latter the noun form. Now read the following sentences: 1) When a man cannot breathe, it may be assumed that he is already in the valley of the shadow of death. 2) Tapping on the patient’s chest, the doctor asked him to breathe in and out gently three times. 3) He ran into the room, breathing heavily. 4) Is it always the case that an asthma patient cannot breathe without the help of an inhaler? 5 Vibrant and visionary, the new manager has been able to breathe a new life into the company. 6) Having left the polluted zone, we can now breathe freely.

Readers should please note the final –e in the verb breathe. Please note, in addition, that the letter –e does not feature in the –ing form of the verb: breathing. Now read the following sentences: 1) The dangerous chemical is leaking, and we may have to hold our breath for some seconds as we pass through the premises. 2) Please save your breath; I am beyond persuasion in this matter. 3) God breathed into man the breath of life and he became a living soul. 4) Decaying teeth produce bad breath. 5) He held his breath briefly and then continued his speech. 6) Difficult breath is often a symptom of unhealthy lungs.

Having noted and illustrated the difference between the verb breathe and the noun breath, it becomes important for us to also note the difference between breadth and breath, both of which are nouns.

Now the usage of the word breadth is illustrated as follows: 1) We need to take an accurate measurement of the length and breadth of the cloth. 2) The breadth of this land is slightly shorter than that of the previous one. 3) The area of an object can be got by multiplying its length by its breadth. 4) Is it always the case that the length of an object is longer than its breadth? 5) The length of the land is ok, but it would appear that the breadth has been tampered with. 6) The bed measures seven feet in length and four feet in breadth.

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At any rate, the noun breath should replace its verb-form (breathe) in the context under discussion.


Sample 2: “Cries of agony rented the air at Ojota axis of Lagos when an articulated vehicle laden with plywood fell on a 14-seater commercial bus (Danfo), killing at least five people and leaving three others with grave injuries.”(Black Saturday: Fallen Container Truck Crushes 5 in Lagos, The Sun, July 9, 2017)

The word of interest is rented which occurs in the following context: “cries of agony rented the air.”

This word, its appropriate usage and its misapplication have engaged our attention several times in this place before. It would seem that reporters have not benefited sufficiently from such efforts. What is the problem with this word as used in this context? How do we use the word correctly?

In answering these questions we would not shrink from rehashing some of our earlier presentations on the subject.

The verb from which the form rented is supposed to derive is rend, meaning to break through violently, to tear apart, to make a loud, deafening noise. The form rented has been presented by the reporter as the past form rend.

However, there can be no mistake about the fact that the writer’s head is racked by confusion regarding the forms rend, rent and rented. There is the verb rent, meaning to take and use for some time, say an apartment, a facility, a vehicle, etc, for a fee. The forms of that verb are: rent, rents, renting and rented. Usage examples: 1) She rents a car every week for that purpose. 2) He has been renting out his father’s houses for the past five years. 3) The facility was rented for five hundred thousand naira. 4) I have not rented any house since I secured this job; the company has been providing accommodation. 5) The university has been renting facilities from the company.

The noun form of that verb remains rent: 1) She always takes a loan to pay her rent. 2) When is your rent due? 3) Rents have gone up astronomically since the increase in the prices of petroleum products. 4) Is the house for rent? 5)  We pay an annual rent of one million naira.

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We need, however, to distinguish the various forms of the verb rent from the various forms of the verb rend. The verb rend has the following forms: rend, rends, rent, rending. As we have noted, this verb means to tear violently apart, break into pieces with violence, to utter loud, deafening noise. Usage examples: 1) Every night, the noise of carousing men rends the air. 2) When the president arrived, shouts of ‘APC’ rent the air. 3) A hefty branch of the huge tree was rent by the storm. 4) Heart-rending stories of death and destruction were told by the hapless returnees. 5) Her loving and innocent heart was rent by a bitter disappointment. 6) It was the tradition of the ancient Hebrews to rend their clothes as a sign of penitence. 7) The rocky hill was rent by an earthquake. 8) It was a terrible crash in which the vehicle was rent into two.

It is important to note that the past tense of rend is not rented but rent; the past participle is not rented but rent.

It is also important to note the difference between rend and render. The following sentences are defective: 1) We are *rending an account before the end of the financial year. 2) She narrated a soul-*rendering story of how her husband and children were brutally murdered. 3) He collapsed while he was *rending a song. 4) That sad development *rendered her heart. 5) Increased technology seems to be *rending many workers redundant.

Those sentences are re-presented as follows with the appropriate word replacing the wrong one in each case: 1a) We are rendering an account before the end of the year. 2a) She narrated a soul-rending story of how her husband and children were brutally murdered. 3a) He collapsed while he was rendering a song. 4a) That sad development rent her heart. 5a) Increased technology seems to be rendering many workers redundant.

At any rate, let the form rent replace rented in the context under review.

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