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One sentence caught my attention while reading an article.

With panic disorder, a person has brief attacks of intense terror and apprehension, often marked by difficulty breathing

The point is that difficulty breathing sounds a little bit confusing to me.

Why is difficulty used here(and not diffucult). What part of speech is it?

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    The person has a difficulty with respect to breathing. "difficulty" is a noun.
    – Esther
    Commented Sep 28, 2022 at 16:35

2 Answers 2

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Breathing is an -ing clause, which is the complement of the noun difficulty.

It's quite a common construction:

There was a problem [delivering the books].

It was a delight [seeing you].

or, with an adjective

It could be dangerous [going up on the roof].

"Difficult breathing" would be grammatical there, but it is not idiomatic, and it is not clear whether it would mean the same thing. The given sentence says that the person experienced some difficulty while breathing - it does not say that the breathing itself was difficult, though in practice there may be no difference.

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  • I am not sure what the 'right' grammatical explanation of this usage is. The idea of the ellipse of an (unstated) preposition (in this case, "in") is tempting. It makes sense. But is that really what is going on? The further example ("I have trouble learning"), as mentioned, does not call easily for a particular preposition. Each phrase achieves its meaning through pure juxtaposition. Why not call both 'exegetic (explanatory) juxtaposition', where the second word explains the first? The utterer of "I have difficulty breathing" is not silently thinking "in".
    – Tuffy
    Commented Sep 28, 2022 at 17:34
  • I agree with you @Tuffy. I think that the explanation of an omitted preposition, though it works in some cases, is less general than my suggestion. I can't think of prepositions which would fit in my second and third examples.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Sep 28, 2022 at 20:15
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Why is difficulty used here(and not diffucult). What part of speech is it?

There's an ellipsis of a preposition before "breathing":

"With panic disorder, a person has brief attacks of intense terror and apprehension, often marked by difficulty [in] breathing."

"Difficulty" is a noun functioning as the object of the preposition "by."

"Breathing" is a noun (a participial noun) functioning as the object of the omitted (but understood) preposition "in."

To those averring the following:

"The utterer of 'I have difficulty breathing' is not silently thinking 'in'."

How do you know that? In any case, I'm neither a mind-reader nor a psychologist, and it makes no difference at all what was occurring in the mind of the person who made the utterance. My job is to parse the construction according to consistent principles of syntax, and not to invent new categories, ad hoc, for the sake of easy explanation.

So "X had difficulty [in] breathing" is a correct parsing of the construction, irrespective of whether or not the originator of the utterance was "silently" thinking of the preposition. I don't know what he silently thought; neither does anyone else except the utterer. Constructions assume a force of their own even if someone who utters them did not intend it, or never thought, it or even denies it later on. "All professors are absent-minded, and Joe is a professor . . . oh, but, hey, I'm certainly not thinking that Joe is absent-minded!" Right. It matters not. The innuendo of the unstated but understood conclusion presented in the enthymeme is ineluctable.

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