I have seen some phrases such as "difficulty breathing" and "difficulty falling asleep". Considering that 'difficulty' is a noun, I want to know which compound is grammatically correct;

  • difficulty + ...ing


  • difficulty in ...ing
    such as "difficulty in breathing"

    or even

  • difficult breathing

What are the differences?

  • In the latter one, I and you are very sure that difficult is an adj. and that gerunds can be nouns. But in the case of "difficult breathing", I don't know, seems odd to my ears (and my guts too :D)
    – M.A.R.
    Jan 4, 2015 at 19:46

2 Answers 2


If you look up the usage of the noun "difficulty" in any dictionary, you will find that you say "difficulty doing something or difficulty in doing something", without any difference in meaning.

So difficulty in breathing and difficulty breathing are both grammatically correct. The use of "in" is optional.


I think you've picked a hard one!

So, this is a fixed expression:

(see http://www.englishpage.com/gerunds/expression_ing.htm)

And... here are my thoughts:

difficulty is a noun, but in the above context when you use it with the verb "to have", it presents a special case fixed expression.

to have difficulty..., having difficulty...

In which case, the following verb + ing is always a gerund.

(You've also given a further example of the phrasal verb "to fall asleep" (other examples: "to keep up", "to turn up") which follows the same gerund making rule , ie, :"falling asleep". A little tricky but still follows the rule)

I feel that the fixed expression sort of transforms the roles of the noun and verb, because the part "to have difficulty" is kind of the adjective and the it describes the verb+ing, which is turned into a gerund (noun).

This is not authoritative, I wouldn't mind if someone came and cleared this up too, but I hope it makes sense.

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