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A breve - pronounced to rhyme with 'sleeve' and 'grieve', IPA: /bri:v/ - is a diacritic. It is the small segment of a circle, inside uppermost, written over a vowel to indicate its 'length', or, more accurately, shortness. Its use in normal English writing is reserved for certain technical matters, such as marking scansion - nowadays mostly to show a short syllable in quantitative metres, but it has sometimes been used in the past to indicate unstressed syllables.

As it is used in the teaching of Latin, it can be seen in

  • ă (the sound of the vowel in 'cat' and 'at', IPA: /æ/);
  • ĕ• (the sound in 'get' and 'bed', IPA: /ɛ/);
  • ĭ (the sound of 'sit' and 'lip' (IPA: /ɪ/);
  • ŏ (the sound of 'got' and 'not' (IPA: /ɒ/);
  • ŭ, (the sound of 'book' and 'put' (IPA: /ʊ/).

While the breve is used to mark short vowels, its pair, the macron (a short horizontal line above a vowel, e.g., ā, ē) is used to mark long vowels.

Do not confuse the printer's mark, or diacritic, for a short vowel (the breve) with the confusingly named long note in conventional Western musical notation. The breve (called the 'double whole note' in American English), is written as a hollow oval to which are attached on either side a pair of very short vertical lines. It may seem strange that the word for a long note should be derived from the Latin word for 'short' (see below). The explanation is that the breve was originally a short note, but as the longer notes have fallen out of use and shorter notes have been introduced, it has become the longest note.
Do not confuse the the breve, which is rounded, with the caron, which has a sharp point.
Etymological note: breve, a form of the adjective (and noun) brief, comes from the Latin brĕvis, 'short'.