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The Phrasal Verb 'Break Up' explained

Updated: Nov 25, 2023

An explanation of the different meanings of the English phrasal verb 'break up', with examples and exercises.

A heart shaped cookie broken up into two parts alongside a dried up rose

Hello and welcome to my website all about English phrasal verbs. Each week, I take a different phrasal verb and look at how it is used by native speakers, with a focus on the different meanings that it has and the expressions and idioms that it is used in.


The phrasal verb 'break up' is used frequently in English and has several common meanings, as well as some less common, regional meanings. A common theme among many of the meanings that it has is the idea of 'ending' or 'finishing' and that something no longer exists as a whole unit anymore, however there are some other different meanings in addition to this. So, without further ado, let's take a look at them....


BREAK UP: KEY INFORMATION

Usage

Common

Number of meanings

6

Separable

Yes

Past tense forms

Broke up / broken up

British or American?

Both

For more explanation of the terms in the table above, click here.

 

THE BASICS

The letters A-G spelled out in plasticine on a red background

To begin, let's first take a look at the meanings of the individual words 'break' and 'up' as these may provide some insight into the phrasal verb meanings of 'break up'.


The verb 'to break' is a commonly used verb in English with a variety of meanings. Perhaps the most frequently used meaning is to cause something to stop working by damaging it, by using force either to separate it into separate pieces or to stop it functioning somehow. In addition to this meaning, 'to break' as a verb can also be used to mean 'to briefly interrupt or stop something' and 'to bring something to an end', among other meanings.


The prepositional particle 'up' will be no stranger to any regular readers of this blog (or to any learner of English) and is primarily used to talk about movement to a higher place or away from the ground.


So, now what we have covered the basics, let's move on to the meanings of 'break up'....

 

MEANING 1: To separate into smaller pieces


CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Common

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To disintegrate, to break down

The first meaning of 'break up' that we will cover in this post is 'to divide or separate into smaller pieces'. This meaning can be used both transitively, with a direct object, and intransitively, without one.


Firstly, let's look at the transitive use, where 'break up' takes a direct object, as I think that this is the more commonly used of the two variations.


When we 'break something up', it means that we separate it into smaller pieces, so that it no longer exists as a complete unit. This is usually done by applying some force to the object that needs to be 'broken up' and this can either be done in an intentional way, where something needs to be separated into pieces as part of a process, or it can be in a purely destructive way.


A bar of chocolate broken up into squares

If you have read my post about the phrasal verb 'break down', you may remember that we also use this to mean 'to separate something into smaller pieces'. While these two phrasal verbs can be used as synonyms in certain situations, there is a small difference.


We tend to use 'break down' with items that can be separated and dismantled into separate parts to be put back together again in the future e.g. furniture, and these items are not truly broken as they will function again in the future. On the other hand, the particle 'up' in phrasal verb constructions often carries the meaning of a permanent end and and we would therefore use 'break up' more for separating something into pieces permanently, e.g. bread or a chocolate bar, with the idea that something is truly broken and will not function in the same way again.


Although we often tend to use 'break up' in this way with objects that we can break using our hands, it can be used with any items that we cause to break into separate, often many, pieces.


As this form takes a direct object, it can be used separably and the placement of the direct object does not affect the meaning. We often use the words 'into pieces" or "into bits" after this usage of 'break up' to describe the end result of the 'breaking up' action.


Examples of usage....

John broke the bar of chocolate up into small pieces in order to make his favourite dessert.
He broke up the bread and passed it around to the others in the group.
The old picture frame was too large to fit into the car, so Helen had to break it up into smaller pieces in order to take it to the rubbish tip.

Now let's look at the intransitive use of this meaning of 'break up', where there is no direct object. If we say that something 'breaks up' then we mean that something separates into smaller parts by itself, i.e. without direct intervention from a person. This can also be used to mean when things disintegrate or disperse.


Examples of nouns that this intransitive form is used with are things like clouds, items that fall from space through the atmosphere and icebergs. However, it can also be used for any objects that can break into separate pieces without any specified human intervention to cause it. Interestingly too, we can say that when countries separate into smaller parts that they also 'break up' without a direct object.


Examples of usage....

Luckily, the meteor broke up in the Earth's atmosphere and only tiny fragments of it fell to the ground.
The clouds broke up at just the right time for the people to be able to see the solar eclipse.
When the civil war ended in 1876, the country broke up into three smaller independent states.
 

MEANING 2: To end a romantic relationship


CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Common

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To separate, to end

The second meaning of 'break up' is another hugely common one and means 'to end a romantic relationship'.


If a couple 'breaks up', then it means that their romantic relationship has ended, although this does not necessarily mean that the split is permanent and many people can and do get back together or 'make up' again after breaking up. The signification of 'break up' here again links back to the idea that something no longer exists as a complete unit, as the couple becomes separated into two separate parts.


While we do predominantly use 'break up' in an intransitive way without a direct object, it can also be used with a direct object when another person, be it a family member or another interested person, tries to cause the couple to separate. Thankfully, as most people are good and decent people, this usage with a direct object is rarer, but still very much in use when needed.


Examples of usage....

Roger and Lisa have broken up! I can't believe it, I thought that they would stay together forever!
If you break up with your partner, it can be an extremely painful and sad time.
The couple broke up for a short period last year and got back together again when they realised how much they missed each other.
Helen has always loved John and she has been trying to break his relationship with Lucy up for years now. Luckily for Lucy he doesn't feel the same way about her!
 

MEANING 3: To end a meeting or a gathering



CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To adjourn

Meaning number three of 'break up' is used principally with groups of people and means 'to end a meeting or gathering'.


This application of 'break up' is used in the business world in reference to meetings, specifically when talking about when a meeting ends and the attendees are free to leave. Once again, this meaning carries the idea of something ending (the meeting) and no longer existing as a complete unit.


Outside of the business world, and arguably more common, is the usage of 'break up' to mean 'to end a social gathering, 'generally a party'. Typically, a person who breaks up a party would be an authority figure such as a police officer or a parent. Alternatively at smaller, more intimate parties, the first people to leave would be the ones accused of 'breaking it up'.


One other way that this application of 'break up' can be used is when talking about a physical fight and someone intervenes to stop it or 'break it up'.


Examples of usage....

The meeting broke up at 4pm exactly and all of the attendees went their separate ways.
The police came and broke up the house party after several of the neighbours had complained.
I'm sorry to have to break up the party, but I need to get off now as I have work early in the morning.
The schoolboys got into a fight on the playground and the headteacher had to intervene and break it up.
 

MEANING 4: To be interrupted (signal)

Our fourth meaning of 'break up' is to interrupt a signal, typically of a phone or video call.


For this meaning we are moving away from the idea of ceasing to exist as a complete unit and instead linking back to the meaning of the verb 'to break' as in of 'interference'.


This usage of 'break up' is used almost exclusively with communication signals for telephone and video calls and is used when it is not consistent, therefore causing problems for someone to hear what the other person is saying or only hearing some of the words. It is typically used when one of the people is in a place with bad or patchy reception.


'Break up' in this sense is used intransitively and is not separable as there is not normally a person or thing intentionally causing the interference on the line. We often tend to use this application of 'break up' with continuous verb forms and often with the verb 'to keep'.


Examples of usage.....

I called my parents from my hotel on holiday but the line was so bad and it just kept breaking up, so I couldn't hear half of what they were saying.
I can't hear you, the signal keeps breaking up!
The phone signal is really bad up the mountain and it breaks up constantly when you try and call someone.
 

MEANING 5: To finish for holidays



CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Common

British or American

British

Potential synonyms

To finish

Meaning number five of 'break up' is a really good one if you live in the UK as it is a British usage to mean 'to finish school or work for a holiday or vacation'.


This is very commonly used for schools and educational institutions and is used to refer to the last day of the term or semester before the holidays begin. Aside from this, it is also used by workers to refer to the last day that they work before having time off or going on vacation somewhere. You should note, however, that 'break up' is not used when leaving a school or employment permanently or before taking time off for illness or bereavement - only for a holiday break.


'Break up' in this way is always used without a direct object and native speakers typically just use the words "break up" along with a day or date to specify when their last day will be. We often use the additional preposition 'for' to specify the reason or duration of the holiday.


Examples of usage....

My drive to work was so quick this morning as the kids have broken up for the summer holidays now and the roads are really quiet.
When do the schools break up for Christmas?
I break up today for two weeks, so I need to get all of these emails done and finish this report for my boss.
 

MEANING 6: To start laughing or crying uncontrollably



CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

American

Potential synonyms

To crack up, to burst into tears

For our sixth and final meaning, we are going to switch sides of the Atlantic Ocean and talk about an American usage of 'break up', which is 'to begin to laugh or cry uncontrollably'.


We can use this form of 'break up' intransitively when people start laughing or crying or we can use it with a direct object when something causes the person to laugh or cry. Interestingly, 'break down' can also be used a synonym here, in both British and American English, for when someone becomes emotional or starts crying. For those interested in a British alternative to the uncontrolled laughter, 'crack up' would be a good alternative here.


Examples of usage....

John expected everyone to break up laughing when he told his best joke, but nobody did!
She broke up in tears when she told me that she had broken up with her boyfriend!
 

The word 'BONUS' spelled out using different coloured balloons being held up by different hands

BONUS INFORMATION

Before I finish the post, I just want to give you some extra information on the different ways that the noun 'breakup' or 'break-up' can be used.


Typically and most commonly, breakup as a noun is used to describe the ending of a romantic relationship however it can also be used to talk about when familial relationships are cut and members of a family no longer see each other. Strangely, we do not tend to use the phrasal verb form for these familial relationships though.


Aside from the ending of a relationship, we also use 'breakup' as a noun to describe when countries and empires separate into smaller nations, as well as other items that can be separated into smaller parts, similar to Meaning 1 at the beginning of the post.


Examples of usage....

Sue is still getting over the breakup with her partner last year. It hit her hard!
Breakups can be difficult for people to deal with.
The breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire occurred with the onset of the First World War.
 

Question marks in different coloured overlapping speech bubbles on a black background

EXERCISE Re-write the following sentences using 'to break up'....

  1. Separate the chocolate bar into individual squares and add it to the mixture.

  2. John and Helen separated last week and they are no longer together.

  3. The meeting finished at 4pm sharp and everyone went back to their desks.

  4. I can't hear you properly, there is interference on the line.

  5. Lisa's children finish school tomorrow for the summer holidays.

  6. We all burst into fits of laughter when we saw what Roger had done.

The answers will be available on next week's post.

 

EXERCISE ANSWERS FROM 'TAKE DOWN' (other variations may be possible)

  1. Can you reach up to the top shelf and TAKE DOWN a loaf of bread for me?

  2. The billboard advertisement was TAKEN DOWN after a complaint from a member of the public.

  3. TAKE DOWN the patriarchy now!

  4. Despite having poor eyesight, John managed to TAKE DOWN the car's registration plate.

  5. Roger was a sore loser and told Helen in a threatening way that he would TAKE her DOWN the next time that they played golf.

  6. He is so conceited and arrogant, someone is going to TAKE HIM DOWN A PEG OR TWO one day.

 

That is the end of today's post. Thank you so much for taking the time to read it and I sincerely hope that it has helped you a little bit further on your English learning journey.


If you found the post useful, please like and share it on social media, so together we can help as many English learners as possible to understand and master these tricky phrasal verbs.


Also, please leave any comments, questions, suggestions or examples of 'break up' below. I really love reading them. If you want to receive new blog posts directly email every week, please sign up on the form below. See you next time! James

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