Today you’re going to learn the difference between break in, break out, break down, break up, and break through. Some of these phrasal verbs have multiple meanings!
BREAK IN / INTO
When someone enters a house/building illegally (often using force, in order to steal something) we say they are “breaking in” or “breaking into + (the place)”:
- Having an alarm system discourages people from breaking in.
- Someone broke into the museum and stole the painting.
We can use the noun form, “break-in,” to talk about the event in which someone illegally enters a house/building: “Ever since the break-in last month, I’ve been afraid to spend the night home alone.”
We also use the phrasal verb “break in” when talking about using something new in order to make it more comfortable or familiar to use. For example, when you buy new shoes, the first few days you wear them, you are “breaking them in” – making the shoes adapt to your feet, and getting used to wearing them.
We can use this phrasal verb when skin problems appear – especially a rash or pimples (small bumps).
- After he touched the poisonous plant, a rash broke out all over his arms.
- My teenage daughter doesn’t want to take any pictures because she’s breaking out. (= she has pimples on her face)
We can use the noun form, “breakout,” to describe an instance of skin problems: “This cream will help clear up breakouts within 24 hours.”
“Break out” can also be used when prisoners forcefully escape from a prison:
- Five criminals managed to break out, but they were quickly caught by the police.
Informally, we also use “break out” to refer to making something ready and available to use:
- We won the championship! Let’s break out the champagne!
(= bring the champagne here and get it ready so we can drink it)
This phrasal verb means to separate into pieces, and it is very commonly used when talking about ending a romantic relationship.
- Sarah felt like her boyfriend never gave her much attention, so she broke up with him.
- It’s surprising that they would break up so suddenly after a ten-year relationship.
We can use the noun form, “breakup,” to describe an instance of separation: “He didn’t date for a long time after his last breakup.”
You also might encounter the expression “break up a fight,” which is when other people stop a fight and separate the people who are fighting.
We use this phrasal verb when something mechanical stops functioning:
- Our car broke down when we were an hour outside the city.
- I hope this old elevator doesn’t break down – I’d hate to be stuck inside it!
It can also be used when a person suddenly becomes very mentally/emotionally upset:
- All the stress of my job made me break down and start crying at work.
Again, we can use the noun form, “breakdown,” to describe an instance of this action:
- The machinery has had three breakdowns in the past month.
- I was a little embarrassed about my breakdown at work.
This phrasal verb means to make a sudden advancement in progress, especially getting past an obstacle:
- My therapist suggested a few ways to break through my depression.
- After a rainy day, the sun finally broke through the clouds in the afternoon.
We very commonly encounter this phrasal verb in its noun form, “breakthrough”:
- Scientists have made a breakthrough in cancer research – they’ve found an effective new drug.
- I thought about the problem for a long time, and I finally had a breakthrough: I realized there was nothing I could do to change the situation, so why worry about it?