Swathe or swath?

15 Apr
Swathe or swath?

I had always assumed that there was just one word for a row of grass or other cereal crop as it falls as it’s mown, or a broad area of land, also used by extension for a broad area of anything (swathes of the English-speaking population use swathe and not swath), but then swath started cropping up in both the newspaper and the current affairs magazine I read regularly (which do not share a publisher, although some journalists write for both).

To me, personally, “swath” sounds wrong when I read it (this is where I find out not everyone hears the words in their head, like when I found out that not everyone gets earworms (uninvited music playing in your head). I’ve always pronounced the word to rhyme with “bathe”, with the “a” that’s in “cave”, presumably because I first saw it written as “swathe” and applied the rule that an “e” at the end of a word lengthens the vowel. “Swath” reads to me with a harder “the” and the “shortened”, so like the beginning part of “gather” (this is hard without using linguistic pronunciations symbols!) although I suppose you could read it with the same vowel as “bath” or even “swatch”.

As the dictionaries I consult for this series (primarily Oxford and Merriam-Webster) both say you can use either swathe or swath, I’m guessing that which you use depends on which you first saw and read and thus the way you pronounce it. I’d love to know which you use and how you pronounce it!

Oh, and if you like this kind of stuff, I can highly recommend Kory Stamper’s new book “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries”. I’ve not finished it yet, but, oh, it’s just marvellous. There’s a photo on my book review blog here and a review will appear on the blog in due course.

You can find more troublesome pairs here, and here’s the index to them all!


Posted by on April 15, 2017 in Errors, Language use



9 responses to “Swathe or swath?

  1. Rose Harris

    April 15, 2017 at 9:31 am

    For me, it’s swathe to rhyme with bathe. Swath in my mind (yes, I hear words in my head as well) rhymes with moth – it both looks and sounds wrong.
    And I get ear worms too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Liz Dexter

      April 17, 2017 at 6:19 am

      I’m wondering when swath even came in, to be honest – I don’t remember seeing it before a year or so ago.


  2. Rebecca Foster

    April 15, 2017 at 1:09 pm

    Yes, swath to rhyme with moth and swathe to rhyme with bathe. I think aesthetically I prefer swathe. I always figured there must be a tiny difference in meaning between the two that I didn’t understand; good to know that they’re interchangeable!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Liz Dexter

      April 17, 2017 at 6:20 am

      Glad to help! Interesting points, too, thank you!


  3. Carl D'Agostino

    April 15, 2017 at 6:10 pm

    Prefer swath as in moth. The other way sounds like British English(should I say English English ?) . Prefer ‘merican English.

    One that gets me: when did hiree get to be hire in today’s writing ? Hire as noun? Hire pronounced the same as hiree ? Hire seems verb not noun.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Liz Dexter

      April 17, 2017 at 6:21 am

      So you mean spelled “new hire” but said, “new hiree”? Is that more someone trying to make a point? Of have I misunderstood you? I thought it might be a US/UK thing but not according to Oxford (who usually point this out) or Merriam-Webster (who list both for US) so now I’m wondering about regions …


      • Carl D'Agostino

        April 17, 2017 at 4:39 pm

        As in new hires to mean new employees act of acquisition as “We made 6 new hires today.” seems OK. Then is it spoken hire or hiree to mean the person not the act in hiring? For sure spelled hire but no recollection oral to disguished the two. . I think a younger or less experienced employment officer might pronounce hire and not know the difference written or spoken to hiree. My spell check alerts no word “hiree” in its vocab.

        Another question: when did conflicted become an adjective instead of a past tense verb as “He is conflicted over the matter” ? Seems “he was in conflict…” correct. Or “Answer A conflicted with answer B .” seems corrected. Conflicted as predicate adjective seems wrong.


  4. Don Massenzio

    April 15, 2017 at 9:36 pm

    Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog and commented:
    Check out this post on the distinction between ‘swathe’ and ‘swath’ from the Libro Editing blog.



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