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The Phrasal Verb 'Break Down' Explained: Learn The Different Meanings & How To Use them

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

Learn how to use the phrasal verb 'break down' correctly like a native speaker with a detailed explanation & examples.

Phrasal verb 'break down' - a red and orange warning triangle is placed in front of a broken down car

Hello and welcome to this instalment of Phrasal Verbs Explained; a blog which aims to help you understand English phrasal verbs in a clear and coherent way, so that you can use them to improve your language level and sound more like a native speaker.


In today's post, we are looking at 'to break down', which is very common as both a phrasal verb and a noun. We will take a look at both of these in today's post, so without further ado, let's get started....


KEY INFORMATION

​Usage

Common

Number of meanings

6

Literal Meaning

No

Idiomatic Meaning

Yes

Separable

Yes

Past forms

Broke down / broken down

British or American

Both

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

 

Before we dive into the different idiomatic meanings of 'break down', it is always a good idea to look at the individual words which form it.


A broken smartphone

Firstly, we have the verb "to break", which is a common verb that has a few different meanings, however the main idea of the verb 'to break' means to stop something working, functioning or existing as it did before. This can be something physical such as a cell phone or a leg, or it can be something abstract such as a promise or an agreement.


We then have the prepositional particle 'down', which as an adverb means to be in a lower position or place ⬇️ and as a preposition means to move from a higher place to a lower place.


So, now we have that part out of the way, let's look at the different idiomatic meanings that we have when we combine these words to form our phrasal verb 'break down'.

 

MEANING 1: To stop working



CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

​Usage

Common

Separable

No

Potential synonyms

To break

Commonly used with

Cars, trains, machine, bus, airplane

The first meaning of 'break down' that we will look at in this post is that which means to stop working or functioning. This is used specifically for machinery, equipment and vehicles.


In my native speaker brain this is the first meaning that I think of when I think about the phrasal verb 'break down', probably because it is the most commonly used of all the meanings that we will look at. To be even more specific, this is most commonly used to talk about cars which have developed a fault and stopped working, although it can be used for any vehicle or machinery.

Phrasal verb 'break down' - a woman bends over the bonnet of her broken down car

Examples of usage....

Help! My car has broken down on the side of the freeway! INTENDED MEANING: My car has stopped working and is now on the side of a main road.
The President's airplane broke down and had to be repaired, so was two hours later departing. INTENDED MEANING: The President's airplane stopped working and could not fly, so was repaired meaning that it left 2 hours later than scheduled.
 

MEANING 2: To make into smaller parts



CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper Intermediate

Usage

​Medium

Separable

Yes

Potential synonyms

To divide, to split

Commonly used with

Steps, tasks, segments, parts, chunks

Ok, for this second meaning imagine that you have a really big project that you are working on, which will involve a lot of time and effort. In order to work on this project in an efficient way, it is often a good strategy to break it down into smaller tasks, which you can then work on methodically, in order to complete the main project.


The above example is a typical way that we use the second meaning of 'break down', which means to take something large or complex and make (or break) it into smaller parts, so that it can be dealt with or managed more easily and efficiently.


Typical usage of this second meaning of 'break down' is with complex questions, big projects and procedures. In addition, it is also possible to physically break something down into smaller pieces, e.g a cardboard box or some flatpack furniture.


Note that when using this meaning we require the additional preposition 'into' with the smaller parts that are the end result of the 'breaking down' process.


Examples of usage....

In order to effectively answer this complex question, we need to break it down into smaller subsections. INTENDED MEANING: To answer this complicated question well we need to divide it into different parts.
The process will be a lot smoother if you can break it down into small and manageable steps. INTENDED MEANING: If you can divide the process into steps, it will be easier to finish.
I had to break the large box down into smaller pieces, so that it would fit inside bin. INTENDED MEANING: I had to take the box apart as it was too big to fit inside the bin as a whole.
 

MEANING 3: To disintegrate to nothing



CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

Separable

No

Potential synonyms

To disintegrate

​Commonly used with

Chemical, protein, plastic

Our third meaning of 'break down' is very similar to the second meaning that we have just looked at and also means that something gets smaller. The difference here however is that in this meaning the pieces continue to get smaller and smaller until they disappear or stop existing.


This meaning is normally one that you will hear in scientific language as it is used for things like chemicals, proteins and elements.


Another key difference between this third meaning and the second meaning is that there is no direct object here as nobody is making or causing the thing to break down - it happens naturally or at least without human intervention.


Examples of usage....

Proteins breaks down into glucose in the body.
Plastic breaks down in the oceans, however it is an extremely long process.
 

MEANING 4: To fail



CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

Separable

No

Potential synonyms

To collapse, fail

Commonly used with

Relationship, negotiations, discussions

For meaning number four of the phrasal verb 'break down', we are returning again to the core meaning of the verb 'to break', as well as the first meaning that we looked at. Like both of these, this fourth usage also means to stop functioning, but the difference here is that we are not talking about physical objects, but rather abstract ideas and concepts.


It is extremely common to use 'break down' in this way with abstract nouns such as relationships, discussions, and negotiations when they fail, are not successful or do not work out as originally planned.


Examples of usage....

Discussions between the two political parties broke down on the second day and abruptly ended. INTENDED MEANING: Due to irreconcilable differences between the two parties, the discussions became ineffective and were suddenly cancelled.
Helen and John's marriage broke down when he found out that she had been carrying on with Lisa. INTENDED MEANING: The marriage began to fail once John learned of Helen's affair.
 

MEANING 5: To remove an obstruction with force



​CEFR Language Level

​B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Common

Separable

Yes

Potential synonyms

​To knock down, to remove, to demolish

The next meaning that we are going to look at of the phrasal verb 'break down' is reserved especially for obstacles and barriers. If we have something that stands in our way and which we cannot get past, it is possible to use 'break down', to mean to demolish or reduce the barrier by using force, in order to remove it


This is often used with physical nouns such as walls, barriers and doors, however it can also be used with abstract barriers such as barriers in society for people who are repressed in some way.


Examples of usage....

The police broke down the door to Roger's apartment. INTENDED MEANING: The police used force to demolish the door to the flat in order to enter inside it.
She is a trailblazer who has broken down many barriers for women in her industry over the last 40 years. INTENDED MEANING: The lady has been an innovator in her industry and has changed the possibilities and potential for women in her industry over the last four decades.
 

MEANING 6: To start crying


A woman has broken down in tears and is dabbing her eye with a handkerchief.

CEFR Language Level

​B2 - Upper Intermediate

Usage

Medium

Separable

No

Potential synonyms

To cry

Our sixth and final meaning of 'break down' means to start crying or to become emotional.

This is something that we tend to use more for adults, rather than children, as I think it is used more to describe when a person loses control of their emotions due to a stressful or unpleasant experience in their life and it conveys a level of seriousness that we don't always associate with children crying.

A woman breaks down in tears of joy at her wedding.

We do not always use it for sad crying, however it can also equally be used for when we start crying because we are overcome with happy emotions.




This form of 'break down' is intransitive and does not have a direct object, so if you hear in a conversation that a person has broken down with no immediate object afterwards, you can be certain that the person is crying or emotional.


It is also common to hear the expression 'to break down in tears', however 'break down' on its own is fine to use.


Examples of usage....

Is John ok? He just broke down in the middle of the office! INTENDED MEANING: Jon started crying in the middle of the office.
John broke down in tears of joy when his son was born. INTENDED MEANING: John began to cry when his son was born as he was overcome with happiness.
 

Tips spelt out using wooden blocks

EXTRA TIPS TO SOUND MORE LIKE A NATIVE SPEAKER


You may remember that at the start of the post I mentioned that 'breakdown' is also commonly used as a noun in English.


When using it as a noun, we treat it as one word and the pronunciation is slightly different to when we use it in its phrasal verb form. When used as a noun, native speakers put slightly more stress on 'break' and less on 'down' than they do for the phrasal verb form, in which both parts have a similar level of word stress. See the video below to hear the pronunciation:


Used as a noun, breakdown is commonly used to talk about cars which have broken down, relationships or negotiations which have failed and you may also have heard of nervous breakdowns, which refer to when people become overwhelmed by stress in their lives. It should be noted that a nervous breakdown is not classed as an official medical term in English and may be referred to by health officials as a 'mental health crisis' instead.


Examples of usage....

Do you have adequate breakdown insurance cover for your car?
A breakdown in negotiations occurred as neither side was willing to change their mind and reach a compromise.
John is sending me a breakdown of all of the supplier costs from the last month.
 

A half British half American flag

SPEAK LIKE A NATIVE: TYPICAL EXAMPLES OF HOW 'BREAK DOWN' IS USED BY NATIVE ENGLISH SPEAKERS

If you can memorise some of the below and use them in a conversation, it will help your English to come across as more natural and like that of a native speaker. You'll need to use your imagination to complete some of them.

My car has broken down!
Let me break it down for you.
We need to break the [noun] down into manageable steps.
The police broke down the doors.
[Person] has broken down many barriers in society.
[Person] broke down in tears when....
[Person] broke down in tears in front of....
 


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

  1. The lorry driver noticed steam coming from his lorry's engine shortly before it stopped working.

  2. In order for Roger to finish his project on time, he needs to divide the project into different steps.

  3. The enzyme disintegrates to nothing over a period of 24 hours.

  4. My relationship with my boss has been getting worse and worse since we came back to the office after the pandemic.

  5. The only way that Lisa could reach the neighbours garden to rescue her cat was to use a sledgehammer to demolish the fence.

  6. I started crying in the middle of the meeting in front of all my colleagues.

(Answers are available here)

 

ANSWERS FROM PUT OFF (other variations may be possible)

  1. Can we put the video call off until 3.30pm please.

  2. John and Helen's date was going well until John started swearing, which really put Helen off him.

  3. I used to go to the same barber every time I had my hair cut but the last time I went he didn't cut it very well and so I've been put off going back to him.

  4. We wanted to go and see Ed Sheeran in concert but after we saw the price of the tickets, we were put off.

  5. My wife always talks to me and puts me off when i am doing the crossword in the newspaper.

  6. Airline pilots need to fully concentrate during take-off and landing and cannot let themselves get put off by anything.

 

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 down' below. I really love reading them. See you next time!


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