As mentioned in our last entry in the Phrasal Verbs series, phrasal verbs give the English language the power to do more with less. Because of the prevalence of phrasal verbs, instead of using completely new words to describe different actions, English speakers are able to make small – but important – additions to existing words. Nor are examples like “blow” (which is associated with at least four different phrasal verbs) isolated examples; consider, as we will today, the word break – it has more than a dozen!
Break Down / – to malfunction or stop working
- I need to buy a new car because, after more than ten years of heavy use, my old one broke down last week.
- After several weeks of extreme stress Jack decided to take a vacation before he broke down under the strain.
Note: As the second example shows, this phrasal verb can be used to describe people as well as machines. When applied to people, however, it typically involves a mental, not physical, breakdown. [Breakdown, the related noun form of this phrasal verb, is one word, not two.]
Break … Down – to examine closely
- To better break down difficult problems Matt likes to work in a calm, quiet place.
Note: The object of this phrasal verb can come either between the words or, as in the case above, after it.
Break In / – to interrupt
- While watching a tense conversation between his parents Jeremy waited for an opportune moment to break in and make his big announcement.
Note: “Break into” is a common variant of this phrasal verb that has the same meaning. In the above example, however, we might change the sentence to say “break into the conversation…” instead.
Break In/ – to enter a location forcibly (and often illegally)
- The band of thieves broke in at midnight and was gone – with the jewels – in less than five minutes.
Note: As with the other meaning of break in, above, this phrasal verb often appears as “break into” – in which case the location often immediately follows it in the sentence.
For more on our system of notation – as well as a lot more phrasal verbs – check out our phrasal verb blog posts!