God bless the English language for its pandemic use of the homophone. Especially for those attempting to master this most difficult of languages, the addition of words deciphered through context alone must be the reason they get up in the morning. And of course the pun-tastic nature of the homophone is why I get up in the morning. But let's turn to the native speaker's use (and difficulty with) the homophone.
Every writer is aware of they're, their, and there as well as to, too, and two. They're often a cringe-worthy addition to an otherwise well written piece. If you claim never to have made a mistake because of a homophone then you are a liar in addition to being a bad writer. Just kidding, calm down. The example bated breath is so often misused as baited breath that even good editors can miss the error. Of course if one thinks about it... what exactly is baited breath? If a cat waits with baited breath is it lingering by a mouse-hole with cheese-breath until the mice are lured out by halitosis? That doesn't sound too romantic.
No, bate is a word that is now pretty much defunct in usage. It is a contracted form of the verb abate (To eliminate, lessen or reduce.1). Dropping the unstressed a syllable, we get the shorter word bate but with the same descriptive power. Linguistic genius!2 Apropos, bated breath evokes a scene where our subject is filled with such anticipation as to cause cessation of breathing itself! Wow. Powerful stuff. Shakespeare concurs; in fact, the Bard gave us this gem (give it a rest, Bill, we have enough widely used idioms and metaphors already!).
Shall I bend low and, in a bondman’s key,
With bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness,
Say this ...3
See more phrases Shakespeare invented
- This is what linguists refer to as aphesis
- The Merchant of Venice