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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?

http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/chart?content=held+their+breath%2Cheld+their+breaths&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

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

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    Related: “on their back” or “on their backs”?
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Jul 8, 2011 at 13:38
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    Don't forget that their is commonly used to refer to gender-neutral singular as well as plural.
    – John Y
    Commented Jul 8, 2011 at 15:29
  • 'Hold one's breath' is a fixed phrase, arguably an idiom. But the idiomatic version when correctly applied to more than one referent is 'they held their breath', using the distributive singular. Compare 'The boys wanted to get something off their chest but had a change of heart'. Commented May 10, 2023 at 11:53

5 Answers 5

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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
    Commented Jul 8, 2011 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.
    – devios1
    Commented Mar 4, 2012 at 2:24
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    I'd say breath and would consider this an instance of singular they.
    – Kyudos
    Commented Mar 27, 2013 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 Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 15:06
  • Effector - sorry, no - it is singular in this context. The breath is theirs.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 15:40
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Depends on if 'breath' is considered an indivisible noun in context. 'They carried sand' vs 'They carried sands.' Both are correct, both say something different.

'They combed their hair' vs. 'They combed their hairs'. Both fine, emphasis is different.

'They received money' vs. 'They received monies'. Each correct, each different.

'They saw the light' vs. 'They saw the lights'. Correct, different.

Finally, 'They held their breath' vs. 'They held their breaths'. One emphasizes unity of action, the other implies individual actions. Both are grammatical.

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It depends on whether you mean the individual act of an inhale / exhale (his breaths came rapidly after his run) or breath as in an intangible thing (his breath fogged in the cold air). If you mean breath in the latter sense, it's not really a countable noun any more than smoke or fog is, so singular in that context.

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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. Commented Jul 8, 2011 at 21:31

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