According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, the spelling baited breath instead of bated breath is a common mistake.
It also says that nearly a third of citations for this idiom in the Oxford English Corpus use the incorrect choice of spelling.
The confusion about the correct form of this idiom is because the word bated is not in use today.
The only time you will see the word is in the expression, bated breath.
What does bated breath mean?
It means to wait in an excited or anxious state while expecting something to happen.
It’s probably no surprise to learn that this is one of many words that William Shakespeare invented.
The word’s first use occurs in the Merchant of Venice (1605) in this passage.
Go to then, you come to me, and you say,
“Shylock, we would have moneys,” you say so …
Shall I bend low and in a bondman’s key,
With bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness …
An interesting point in an Enotes explanation of this quote is that bated is a contraction of abated.
The definition of abated means to become less intense.
But the definition of bated is waiting in great suspense, very anxiously or excitedly.
However, in Shakespeare’s use, it might be read to mean to hold one’s breath in fear or eagerness as one waits to see what happens.
It’s easy to see why this is such a confusing idiom.
Why is baited breath wrong?
There are many idioms and expressions that use the word bait.
Generally, the meaning of the word as a verb or adjective is to entice or lure.
What he said was offensive, but she never rose to the bait.
The other kids baited him about writing romantic poetry.
Stop procrastinating and fish or cut bait. (US informal)
Because of the meaning, you can see why baited breath makes no sense.
There is no way that entice, lure, or tease can apply to holding one’s breath in anticipation.
Mignon Fogarty gives a funny explanation as to why baited is wrong. “Nobody would rush toward fishy breath.”
Homonyms often cause problems
Like bated and baited, there are a lot of fixed expressions with homonyms.
Common examples include:
There are also grammar points where homonyms can cause errors, such as passed and past.
It’s easy to miss these mistakes because a spellchecker will never notice the error.
You have to rely on your knowledge or check your usage carefully with a dictionary.
However, if you use a quality grammar-checking or editor tool, you have a better chance of picking up mistakes in fixed expressions.
It’s so easy to trip up when you are writing.
Spelling and grammar aren’t top of mind when you are busily tapping out the words for your new novel or article.
But when you finish writing, always be on the lookout for homonyms that occur in your text.
We all know about two, too and to and there, their and they’re.
But there are so many more that you can miss when you are proofreading or editing.
You might rarely use the words bated and baited. But when you get it wrong, readers will notice.