I hope this is a valid question to ask. I wondered about the different expressions one can use for heavy or unstable breathing. Rather than being heavy breathing from exercising, it's heavy, laboured breathing due to negative emotions.

Would these work ? :

  • "uneven breath/breathing"
  • "quickening breath"

Is there also an expression or phrasing to implement a "breathing that's growing... [rasp/laboured/winded] ?

Are there other expressions to describe the following statement "her pulse quickened". I assume it depends on context, but does this expression implies a positive source or a negative one ?

In terms of regular breathing, can one qualify someone's breath of "steady", or "quite steady" ?

Essentially, how does one breathe in English ?

  • 1
    Most of the alternatives you mention are grammatical and idiomatic. Have a look at Writing for writing advice.
    – Lawrence
    Aug 8, 2018 at 23:20
  • Best pick one question and show the research you have done, please.
    – lbf
    Aug 8, 2018 at 23:35
  • I have in fact asked my question there first, and they redirected me here, as they found it more fitting I'd ask this question in the writing part of the website.
    – FMB
    Aug 9, 2018 at 13:13
  • Odd, definitely thought this was more of an English question. Never mind then! Aug 9, 2018 at 13:14
  • 1
    FWIW I don't see this as an English question, it seems like a writing dilemma to me; and sometimes creative writing involves specific words and how readers will interpret them; regardless of the "dictionary" definition. Words acquire nuances and implications that aren't shown in the dictionary. In my answer below, I wanted to talk about the physical reaction system and how understanding it can add plausibility to fiction.
    – Amadeus
    Aug 9, 2018 at 13:17

4 Answers 4


Ragged breathing is often used; you are looking for synonyms for erratic, ragged, irregular, interrupted, etc.

Our hearts accelerate in anticipation of physical activity (and during physical activity) of any kind. They accelerate in moments of fear, they accelerate in moments of romance, they accelerate anticipating battle or a race, to prime muscles. The only thing a rapid heartbeat means is something is about to happen. Just approaching a romantic interest to ask them on a date can do it, the body mistakes the fear of rejection for fear of battle (the body can be pretty dumb at times).

Facing an opponent and anticipating battle, the body will also dump adrenaline into the system, making one's legs tremble, not out of fear but preparing to hit and be hit (and adrenaline helps reduce the pain of being struck).

As for "quickening", look for synonyms of rapid. Or "quick", but those are a mix of words meaning "rapid" and words meaning "clever".

And always remember, in writing, readers don't mind reading. If you can't find the right word, you can usually find the right sentence, or a metaphor or simile, even a paragraph.

As she approached Mark, her heart beat tripled, trembling in her chest, as if trying to shake her awake from this reverie and turn her away. Mentally she told it, she had to do this.

  • +1 for "readers don't mind reading." I'll have to ponder that one :) Aug 9, 2018 at 16:02

What you're describing sounds like standard fayre for something that's causing an accelerating breathing rate. I think 'quickening' works too; the main point is, you need to be sure that the change is the focus, not necessarily the raw speed of all that hyperventilation.

Edit: Yes, it's appropriate for negative emotions to make one's breathing uneven rather than merely fast in its entirety. I almost forget to clarify that.


During an emergency, your breathing rate and pattern often change. Instead of breathing slowly from your lower lungs, you begin to breathe rapidly and shallowly from your upper lungs. Such shallow rapid breathing can produce a phenomenon called "hyperventilation." Such a person can be said to be "breathless", "gasping", "panting", "wheezing", etc.

"Quickening breath" may work in this context.

"Her pulse quickened, as did her breath."

Take a look here for some more examples.

Yes, regular breathing is often characterized as "steady". For example, " A slow, steady breathing pattern enhances core stability." from healthline.com


Few thoughts because there is a plethora of questions here with specific scenarios. Your question centers around different expressions and their positive or negative emotion, here are a few thoughts to consider.

  1. Emotion is relative to persons and time in most cases. If you are unsure whether it is positive or negative, think about how it makes you feel and how it sounds in context. "Heavy" and Labored" breathing certainly lean to a negative connotation, but in context of something that is pleasurable, the contrast of difficulty of breathing, and joy of the moment provide a very intense and positive experience for the reader.
  2. Play with how the word sounds. uneven! perfect. Having a long history of respiratory problems in my family, uneven breathing is perfectly descriptive of what I've witnessed and personally experienced. Quickening... Could be better. I'm sure there's an actual rule to it, but just how it sounds feels unnatural because of its three syllables.
  3. Some of your other examples "Her Pulse Quickened" Great, "Quite Steady" Big no no. Consider Mark Twains advice on the word "very", quite and very are similar in many ways. He said that anytime you felt like adding the word very, replace it with "damn" your editor will remove it, and your writing will be better for it.

I hope this is helpful! Trust your gut, and focus on how you feel about the words. Your readers will connect to that if your true to what you're feeling.

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