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I was looking into the usage of 'to catch one's breath'. To my understanding, it's used to denote a pause between an intake of breath and the release. However, I was told that the idiom is more commonly rendered as 'one's breath caught in one's throat' and this got me thinking about who's doing the catching.

In the first one, the person seems to actively catch their breath. In the second one, it seems that the breath was passively caught by the throat. Since it's supposed to be a surprise reaction, the whole thing should be an involuntary action, though, right?

So, which one to use? Is one usage better/more correct than the other?

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    I've never seen "one's breath caught in one's throat" outside of literary contexts.
    – siride
    Jan 3 at 4:20
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    Catch my breath is not a momentary action. It means stopping to allow my breathing to slow down and return to normal. People rushing around also use the expression metaphorically to take a break from a hectic pace. Jan 3 at 13:49
  • Two different meanings. Example: Her breath catches in her throat at time stamp 3:26 -- let's make sure we include that in the broadcast. / Voting to close but I'll retract if you show your research. Jan 3 at 23:15

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As aparente001 points out in a comment above, the expressions tend to mean two very different things: "to catch one's breath" is a well-established idiom whose primary meaning is "to recover from exertion" (the implication being that one was "out of breath" and is now in the process of regaining one's normal breathing pattern), while "one's breath caught" means that one's normal breathing was suddenly but briefly interrupted—perhaps because one became aware of something dangerous or emotionally resonant.

Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013) has this entry for "catch one's breath":

catch one's breath 1. resume normal breathing after physical exertion of some kind, as in These stairs are steep; wait a minute till I catch my breath. This phrase sometimes means the same as HOLD ONE'S BREATH—that is stop breathing momentarily. {Early 1800s} 2. Relax, take a rest, as in Events have been moving so fast I'd like to stop and catch my breath. {First half of the 1900s}

Ammer's treatment of definition 1 of "catch one's breath" leaves room for the expression to be understood as "be excited, anxious, or nervous" (Ammer's definition of "hold one's breath" elsewhere in the same dictionary); this is not the primary sense of "catch one's breath," however, and in any case it lacks the sense of sudden, very brief, spontaneous, and (as it were) involuntary breath holding of the sort implied by "one's breath caught."

Nevertheless, a search of Google Books matches for "caught [one's] breath" does turn up a number of instances in which the expression seems interchangeable with "[one's] breath caught" in the sense of a stifled gasp. For example, from Fanny Kilbourne, "Betty Bell and the Leading Man," in The Delineator (January 1920):

As he drew nearer, Betty glanced up and saw his face. She caught her breath sharply.

It was not alone that the man was handsome, the handsomest man she had ever seen — there was something more than that. He was handsome in a startling, challenging, breath-taking sort of way.

And from Stella Gammell, The Immortal Throne (2016):

"Fiorentina," said her hostess from the gloom. "How are you?"

"As well as can be expected," she replied, forcing a smile.

Giulia stepped into the light from the window and Fiorentina caught her breath. The woman had lost ten years, twenty years, since she last saw her.

The expression "[one's] breath caught" has become remarkably more frequent in Ngram search results over the past half century—and especially since about 2000—than it was before that, as this Ngram chart for "breath caught" for the period 1850–2019 indicates:

Although relatively uncommon in the nineteenth century, the expression "breath caught" in the relevant sense does appear at least as early as 1817. From Grace Keon, The Ruby Cross: A Novel (1817):

Anne read the words over twice—the first time too utterly bewildered to grasp their meaning. "You will hear from me—and Rosalie!" From whom? "D.B." David? Not David!

The breath caught in her throat—a little choking gasp, and with the fleetness of the wind she ran out into the hall again and was down at the end of the corridor, rapping at Rosalie's door.

Modern instances of the expression tend to describe a similar response to unexpected or intense emotion. For example, from KJ Jackson, The Iron Earl: Valor of Vinehill (2019):

"Please, my lord, I will do anything. I need to leave and you are my only chance for a true escape."

His left eyebrow shot upward, the devil pulling his lips back in a terse line that curled up at the corners of his mouth. "Anything, dove?"

Her breath caught in her throat. The man was dangerous. How had she not seen that?

To judge from Google Books search results, the wording has become almost a cliché in Harlequin Romance–type novels. Indeed, the sentence "Her breath caught in her throat" appears twice (many pages apart) in The Iron Earl.

Instances of "caught [one's] breath" may still be more common than instances of "[one's] breath caught," as this Ngram chart comparing the frequency of occurrence of "breath caught" with that of "caught her breath," "caught his breath," "caught my breath," "caught their breath," and "caught our breath" for the period 1850–2019 suggests:

But in any event the comparison is not apples to apples, since so many of the "caught [one's] breath" instances involve regaining one's breath, not momentarily losing it.

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  • Very comprehensive analysis and explanation (I should databank that comment). I was about to suggest, for completeness, that 'I caught my breath' ↔ 'My breath caught' is the active ↔ ergative alternation. This is probably sound as far as the synonymous usages go, but I'd not like to comment on the default, usually volition-related, sense of 'I caught my breath'. Jun 4 at 11:00

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