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In some books, I see the use of the word "breaths" in the phrase "they held their breaths". Is this correct? And if it is, should I go by the Ngram (below) in spite of grammaticality?

Or are both correct? (If so, I would go with the more popular "held their breath".)

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Don't forget that their is commonly used to refer to gender-neutral singular as well as plural. –  John Y Jul 8 '11 at 15:29

3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

The singular form is correct in this context:

Bob and Alice held their breath.

As is:

The crowd held its breath.

But "Bob tried to quiet his breaths" would also be correct.

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"Bob and Alice held their breaths." sounds correct to me. They are each holding their respective breath, so referring to plural 'breaths' actually sounds better than 'breath'. I'd say either is acceptable. –  Jez Jul 8 '11 at 13:59
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I disagree. I feel "breath" would only be correct if said as "Bob and Alice each held their breath." It is not a single concept shared between them--they don't share the same breath, therefore I feel breaths is correct. –  chaiguy Mar 4 '12 at 2:24
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I'd say breath and would consider this an instance of singular they. –  Kyudos Mar 27 '13 at 23:14
    
no doubt about it; breath is wrong.. breaths <-that's right; the word breath is attributed to one person. it's a countable noun. and it is not unconventional. when more than one person is described, as persons or people, then "breaths" is not incorrect –  Effector Dhanushanth Mar 28 at 15:06
    
Effector - sorry, no - it is singular in this context. The breath is theirs. –  Rory Alsop Mar 28 at 15:40

Just as you would say "I was holding my breath", you would also say "The crowd was holding their breath". This is because "I" and "the crowd" are both singular. So "breath" would be correct.

If you say "They were holding their breaths", you would then also say "Bob and Alice were holding their breaths". This is because "they" and "Bob and Alice" are both plural. So "Bob and Alice held their breaths" would be correct, even though in my opinion "breath" sounds better.

Remember: In a sentence, use breath if the subject is singular and breaths if the subject is plural.

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Each had a breath to hold - you would say each held his or her breath - but they couldn't share a breath so "they held their breaths" is appropriate. I wouldn't say it's more correct, but it's appropriate.

I'm surprised it's not more popular according to your Ngram.

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"they held their breath" sounds more... right to me. It just sounds better than "breaths". Beats me why. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jul 8 '11 at 21:31

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