Inhaling, gasping and panting: words to describe breathing

A woman in profile exhaling. The vapour of her breath is visible in the cold air.
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by Liz Walter

Today’s post is about language around the activity of breathing – something we usually do without thinking about it unless we have a medical problem or are deliberately doing breathing exercises, for example during yoga practice.

Let’s start with something very basic: the difference between the noun breath, pronounced /breθ/ and the verb breathe, pronounced /briːð/. Notice that both the vowel sound and the ‘th’ sound are pronounced differently in the verb and the noun.

The part of our body that take breath in and out are our lungs. We breathe in and breathe out or, slightly more formally, inhale and exhale:

She breathed in deeply, filling her lungs.

When they exhaled, you could see their breath in the cold air.

A doctor listening to your chest might ask you to take a deep breath, and if they want you to wait for a few seconds before you breathe out again, they will ask you to hold your breath:

Take a deep breath for me, please, and hold it for as long as you can.

Most of us become breathless or out of breath (feel that we can’t breathe enough) if we run very fast. We start to pant or breathe heavily. In British English, we sometimes say that we are puffed out. We need to rest to catch our breath or get our breath back:

He was breathless with excitement.

They had run all the way and were still panting.

There’s no rush. Take a moment to get your breath back.

People may have breathing difficulties because they are ill. If breathing is laboured (UK)/labored (US), it takes a lot of effort and if it is ragged, the rhythm of the breaths is uneven.  Shallow breaths may not take enough oxygen into the body, while someone who wheezes makes a rough sound when they breathe:

Her breathing became laboured and we decided to call an ambulance.

My chest hurt and my breathing was shallow.

He was allergic to the cat and soon started to cough and wheeze.

A common collocation to describe difficulty in breathing is to say that someone is struggling for breath or struggling to breathe. We can also say that they are gasping or gasping for breath. If something such as medicine helps them, they can breathe (more) easily, but someone who can’t get enough breath will eventually suffocate (die because they don’t have enough oxygen):

The old man was struggling for breath.

Let’s open a window so we can all breathe more easily.

The man was suffocated by a plastic bag over his head.

I hope you find these words useful. Can you think of any more words connected with breathing?

17 thoughts on “Inhaling, gasping and panting: words to describe breathing

    1. Juanfra

      Thanks a lot! The word I would suggest connected to breathing is the adjective ‘winded’. Probably it is not widely used but I think it could be used to describe someone exhausted after doing a physical exertion.

  1. Vinod kale

    After learning these words I can breathe more easily in the English atmosphere I don’t need to gasp for breath
    So relevant and apt vocabulary for breathing in and out English words

    1. Widad. M

      Many thanks for this opportunity to know important meanings related to breath and breathe, such as inhaling, gasping and shallow breath. Now you let understand how can i chat with my doctor about some of the difficulties wich i have struggled with them and I don’t know how to put them out. Again thank you so much for your interest lesson.

  2. Dr Dilip Maydeo

    Asphyxiate is to be unable to breathe due to drowning or poisoning . It is a critical state . The clinical word for breathlessness is Dyspnoea . Breathing deep and frequent is hyperpnea or hyperventilation,whereas involuntary stoppage of breath is apnoea ! Anoxia or hypoxia is inability to oxygenate the blood and tissues due to respiratory failure or insufficiency .

  3. Nastya

    I’ve just come up with a phrase ”to draw breath” which means to pause to take a breath. Amazing, thank you for the article.

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