English is full of homophones, or words that have the same pronunciation but vastly different meanings, origins, and spelling. Some of the most confused homophones include their/they’re/there; affect and effect; and complement and compliment.
Let’s add another pair to the list: breach and breech.
Are you a whale watcher? A lawyer? A gun owner? You might know the definition of these words. But do you know how to spell them correctly? This is a refresher for all of us.
Heaven forbid we catch a whale breaching and confuse it with breech. One word implies you’re part of a whale-watching tourist group; the other that you’re … the whale’s birth coach.
Confused? Don’t be. We’re about to break down these two easily confused words.
What does breach mean?
The word breach means “the act or result of a breaking” or a “gap, rift, fissure” when used as a noun. Breach can also be used as a verb, “to make a breach or opening in” or “to break a contract.” (This is the definition lawyers should recognize.)
And animal lovers may know it can be used to describe when a whale leaps completely or partially out of the water and returns back to the ocean with a splash.
Breach has an old history. It comes from the Old English bræc for “breaking,” and the Middle English breche.
What does breech mean?
On the other hand, breech has a few very different uses including “the hinder or lower part of something,” especially when talking about the rear part of the gun that allows the insertion of ammunition.
When a baby is incorrectly positioned feet first in the womb at delivery, it’s also described as a breech. A whale is a mammal that is born tail first, so this would be considered a breech birth.
You may also recognize that a pirate has breeches, not just regular pants. The word breech has roots in old Germanic languages from before the year 1000, including Old Norse, Old English, and Middle English. The Old English root for breech, which is brēc, was actually a plural for a word that referred to leg coverings. Hold on to your breeches!
So, how do we use these words correctly?
First, remember that breach can be thought of as metaphorical, and breech is physical. We breach a contract or form, but we load the breech of a gun or deliver a breech birth by cesarean section.
Should you be more visually inclined, think of the word breach as breaking the double ee‘s in breech. This trick will clue you in to the meaning of both words.
Let’s try an example. Can you tell which word should go in the blank based on context clues?
- You’ve ____ our agreement of honesty by lying, and I’m not sure if I can trust you again.
If you put breached in that spot, you’re correct! In this instance we’ll use the definition of “the act of a breaking,” because lying created a “gap or rift” in this metaphorical relationship.
How about another one?
- The data ____ affected the personal information of millions of customers.
Breach again! This example is seen often, and is a good marker to remember which word to use.
Remember: although these two words sound identical, there isn’t any overlapping meaning between them. Breach can be used in general for the breaking of something, while breech has a few very specific instances that would warrant its use.
How about this one?
- A baby that is ____ at 20 weeks will typically change positions before the delivery.
That’s the highly specific breech, and the mention of birth should have tipped you off.
Now that you’ve mastered this homophone pair, which one will you conquer next?