The Grammarphobia Blog

What’s fishy about baited breath?

Q: I’m a novelist and I’m not entirely confident that my copy editors will get these two usages right, as the variants are so common that the correct way is now unclear. Is it “uncharted” or “unchartered” waters? (My bet is with the first.) Is it waiting with “bated” or “baited” breath? (I’m going with the first again.)

A: Waters that aren’t mapped (that is, charted) are “uncharted waters.” Only Mrs. Malaprop sails on the “unchartered” kind. Boats are “chartered,” or hired, but not waters.

“Baited breath” is another malapropism. Breath that’s held in suspense is “bated breath,” because the breathing has temporarily stopped (that is, abated). Only fish have the “baited” kind.

You’re right, of course, that the two malapropisms are growing in popularity, but the standard usages are still predominant.

Here’s the result of some googling: “baited breath,” 265,000 hits, and “bated breath,” 471,000; “unchartered waters,” 66,000 hits, and “uncharted waters, 412,000.

I couldn’t find any published references for “unchartered waters” in the Oxford English Dictionary, but “baited breath” did make it – in a humorous comment on trendy expressions.

Will these malapropisms ever become proper English? I hope not, but now we’re in uncharted waters.

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