Many Ways to Break

By Mark Nichol

How does one break? Which preposition follows the verb break depends, in American English idiom, on which type of literal or figurative breaking is occurring.

To break away is to escape, to suddenly separate from a group, as in a race, to stop doing something (also referred to as taking a break), or to end or reduce one’s dependence on another. A part of something is also said to be broken away from a whole. (See also “break up.”)

“Break down” means to succumb to one’s emotions, or refers to when something, such as a vehicle, stops working, or to dividing something into parts or destroying it; the noun form is breakdown.

To break for something is to stop doing something, such as working (also referred to as taking a break), or to run toward something suddenly, as when trying to escape.

“Break in” means to interrupt, intrude, or invade. In addition, one breaks a person or an animal in by training him, her, or it; to break something in is to accustom it to use. To break into means to start doing something suddenly, as in “break into song” or “break into tears.” “Break into” can also be synonymous with “break in” or can refer to dividing something into pieces. An invasion of private property is called a break-in.

To break off is to suddenly interrupt one’s speech or a meeting or to cut off communication with someone, or it can refer to a part of something separating from the whole.

“Break out” can refer to the onset of a rash or another skin condition, to an escape, or to a sudden outburst or to the beginning of a disturbance such as a riot or a phenomenon such as a fire. It also describes the act of suddenly making something such as drinks and/or food available. One can also break out into a cold sweat from anxiety. The noun form, suitable only for some senses, is breakout.

Waves or a sudden overflow of water can break over an object such as a ship’s gunwale or a seawall or other barrier. A person or a thing can break through a literal or figurative barrier; the act is called a breakthrough.

“Break up” is slang for ending a romantic relationship, but it can also refer to the division of a whole into smaller pieces, whether naturally, as when ice breaks, loosens, and melts in warmer weather, or artificially, as when somebody breaks a candy bar into sections to share it; the noun form is breakup. (The admonition “Break it up!” is a call to stop engaging in something, such as a fight.)

One can break with tradition, which alludes to doing something differently than it is customarily done.

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2 Responses to “Many Ways to Break”

  • Thebluebird11t

    Great post! who’d a thunk?!

  • Anne-Marie

    “One can also break out into a cold sweat from anxiety. ”

    That’s a rather limited view. Anxiety is not the only cause of breaking out into a cold sweat. My husband broke out into cold sweats when he had Viral Meningitis.

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