Life - live (verb) - live (adjective)

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Three similar and related words, whose forms sometimes give rise to confusion, especially to non-native speakers reading.

  • The verb 'to live' (rhymes with 'give'), as a verb, labels an action or a state of existence. In this case, the root meaning is 'to exist' - though there are many developments of it: OED lists some 13 branches of meaning, with many side-branches. The 3rd personal singular is lives, rhyming with 'gives' (IPA: /lɪvz/), e.g. 'He lives at number 3'.
  • This looks the same as - but sounds different to - the plural of the noun life (rhymes with 'wife', 'knife', etc). The plural is spelled lives (except in the unusual noun phrase still lifes): just like the spelling of the 3rd person singular - but with a different pronunciation. It rhymes with 'wives' (IPA: /laɪvz/). An example might be "The lives of others are mysterious to us."
  • There is also an adjective live which looks like the verb but has the same vowel as the noun. It rhymes with the contraction "I've" (~ "I have"). This is used in connection with electricity, the media and certain other types of activity. It means 'active', or 'living' in a figurative sense. The live rail on the London Underground (the Tube) and other electric railways is the dangerous one that carries the current; a live show is one that is not pre-recorded: it is broadcast as it happens; a live football broadcast shows a match that is happening as you watch it. Scientists might talk of a live experiment to mean one, perhaps of long duration, like growing a crystal in Chemistry, that is still in progress.