I am loath to loathe

The words “loathe” and “loath” seem to give writers trouble. I found this sentence in a wire service story Monday: Being a wine lover, she is loathe to pick just one, though. “Loath” is what we needed here.

Most people know the meanings: “loathe” means to despise, and “loath” means reluctant. The two words are pronounced differently in standard American dialect: “loathe” has a soft th sound as in father, and “loath” has a harder th sound as in teeth. That might help some people distinguish them. But the important distinction for good writing is that “loathe” is a verb and “loath” is an adjective. I think that if writers remembered that they would be less likely to confuse the words. Having taught a few college classes, I understand that some folks get out of elementary school and all the way through secondary school without grasping the parts of speech. It would be worth reviewing them with students again every year just be sure.

Certainly, “loath” is a weird adjective because it most often appears after the verb “to be.” But if you remember that it means “reluctant” you can substitute “reluctant” in a sentence and see whether you need “loath” or “loathe.” Being a wine lover, she is [reluctant] to pick just one, though.

I have always thought that “loathe” sounds just like what it means: to dislike something intensely. Being a Tar Heel fan, the man loathes Duke. You can use the substitute trick on this one, too. If you can substitute the word “despise” in your sentence, then use “loathe.”

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.