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Loath(e) to get it wrong

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Written by Stan Carey

If you’re loath to slip up in your use of loath and loathe – and loth, for that matter – you’re in the right place. The verb loathe means ‘to dislike someone or something very much’. As Kati Sule wrote, it is used ‘for emphasizing that you strongly dislike someone or something, especially when you have no respect for them or regard them as morally bad’. The adjective loath is less common and is typically used in the formula to be loath to do something, which means ‘to be very unwilling to do something’.

Pronunciation helps to distinguish the two words, at least in most cases. In their Macmillan Dictionary entries, audio files and IPA tell us that loath is pronounced /ləʊθ/ (UK) or /loʊθ/ (US), to rhyme with ‘both’, and loathe is pronounced /ləʊð/ (UK) or /loʊð/ (US), to rhyme with ‘clothe’. This follows a phonological pattern in English, where words ending in –the take a voiced syllable: breathe, soothe, lithe, bathe, and so on, while those ending in –th are usually unvoiced.

The reality is a bit messier. Many people pronounce the adjective like the verb, and they often spell it to match, as loathe. Thus loathe has, over the centuries, become a variant spelling of the adjective. This attracts criticism, because it means English is not as tidy as it could be. Some commentators, including the prescriptive Bryan Garner and the more descriptive Robert Burchfield, stress the need to distinguish between the two forms – they consider the use of loathe as an adjective to be incorrect.

If the voiced pronunciation or the spelling loathe (adj.) comes naturally to you, it’s not a crime. The usage has been around a long time, and major dictionaries like the OED and Webster’s Third note it as a variant. The chances of ambiguity or misinterpretation are minuscule. But if you’re loath to bother fussy or discriminating readers, then spell the adjective loath and don’t voice the th when you say it aloud.

Macmillan Dictionary includes loth as a (mainly British) variant of the adjective; I saw an example just today in a short story by Pádraic Ó Conaire. It preserves the Middle English spelling, which developed from Old English lāth, of Germanic origin. Fowler recommended loth in his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage, but loath has since superseded it in popularity. The word has a formal or old-fashioned flavour, regardless of spelling, but that’s no reason to loathe it.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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