Brake vs. Break: How to Choose the Right Word

They're related but different

Drinking glass breaking

Tiago Pádua;/Creative Commons.

The words "brake" and "break" are homophones: They sound the same and are related but have different meanings. The word "break" has many centuries behind it and appears in all the old Germanic languages, the Oxford University Press (OUP) blog says.

But "brake," meaning a device "to slow the motion of a wheel," has been around only a few hundred years, appearing first near the end of the 18th century. The OUP blog article also notes that "brake" came into English at various times in relation to tools that broke or crushed something. One such tool crushed plants such as hemp or flax. Another "brake" came from a word for a bridle, which put the brakes on a horse. "It is a product of folk etymology, for the apparatus 'broke' the motion," OUP says.

How to Use "Brake"

As a noun, "brake" nowadays most commonly refers to a device for slowing down or stopping the movement of a vehicle or machine. On a mode of transportation, it's typically used in the plural form, as in, "My brakes went out." The verb "to brake" means to slow down or stop with a brake.

How to Use "Break"

"Break" as a noun has many meanings, including a fracture, an interruption, a pause, a sudden move, an escape, and an opportunity. The irregular verb "break" also has many meanings. The most common ones include to split into pieces, to make unusable, to disrupt or get rid of, and to interrupt.

It can be a transitive verb (taking an object), as in, "She breaks different colors of glazed ceramic tiles to make her mosaics."

It can be intransitive (no object), such as in, "Cheap toys break easily."

Examples

Here are some examples that show their meanings and some idiomatic usages to help you remember them in context.

  • Gus released the parking brake, threw the car into drive, and pulled away without once looking back.
  • Her bumper sticker said, "Caution: I brake for yard sales."
  • "Oh, give me a break," he said. "I don't believe you."
  • The climbers spent three days in their tents, waiting for a break in the weather.
  • Even a good friend may break a promise.
  • The workers are allowed two 15-minute breaks.
  • People can do jail time for breaking and entering.
  • These stiff new shoes hurt my feet. I need to break them in.
  • The waves are breaking on the shore.
  • The officer cut me a break and let me off with a warning.
  • The basketball player has a really fast break on the court.

How to Remember the Difference

If you can remember that the word "breakfast" came from two words, meaning the meal that you eat to break your fast, you should be able to keep the meanings of the two words separate in your memory.

Practice Exercises

  1. The mechanic replaced the _____ linings and pads on my van.
  2. People shouldn't _____ the law whenever they feel unjustly treated.
  3. Dillinger's prison _____ is the stuff of legend—and movies.
  4. If you _____ something in this shop, you have to pay for it.

Answers to Practice Exercises

  1. The mechanic replaced the brake linings and pads on my van.
  2. People shouldn't break the law whenever they feel unjustly treated.
  3. Dillinger's prison break is the stuff of legend—and movies.
  4. If you break something in this shop, you have to pay for it.

Sources

  • Liberman, Anatoly. "Break and Brake." Oxford University Press blog, 16 June 2010.