Choosing Breakdown or Break Down in a Sentence

One describes the action, while the other describes the result

breakdown and break down
A major breakdown can leave you and your car stranded along the side of a road. WALTER ZERLA/Getty Images

The words "breakdown" and "break down" both refer to a failure or a dismantling of some kind, whether it's mechanical, physical, or emotional. The difference is that, written as one word, "breakdown" is a noun, referring to the result of the action, while the two-word version, "break down," is a phrasal verb that denotes the action leading to the result.

How to Use Breakdown

The one-word noun "breakdown" means a failure to function, a collapse, or an analysis, especially one relating to statistics. The word is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable.

A car can suffer a breakdown when something mechanical or computerized fails and the vehicle won't run. A person suffering a nervous breakdown has an impaired ability to function because of a psychotic or neurotic disorder. An accountant can present a breakdown, or an analysis, of a business plan.

How to Use Break Down

"Break down" is a verb phrase (consisting of a verb and another part of speech) meaning to go out of order, lose self-control, or separate into parts. The phrasal verb is pronounced with equal stress on both words.

Before a car stops running, a mechanical system or an onboard computer "breaks down" and prevents the car from running properly. A person crushed by emotional problems "breaks down" and can no longer function normally. The accountant "breaks down" the business plan, or separates it into its component parts for analysis.

Examples

Here are examples that illustrate the difference between "break down," the verb phrase, and "breakdown," the noun.

Break down:

  • "Firefighters fruitlessly tried to break down the door that led to the staircase to the Melody Lounge...Only with a battering ram were they able to smash the door open." (Stephanie Schorow, "The Cocoanut Grove Fire") It's a verb phrase, meaning to smash down the door.
  • "Cody felt a tear slide down his cheek, and he rubbed at his face. The situation he was in looked hopeless, but he was too old to break down and cry." (Joan Lowery Nixon, "Laugh Till You Cry") It's a verb phrase, meaning to emotionally collapse.
  • "The bumper had knocked out, like a single tooth, a molar-shaped boulder that now sat some dozen yards into the woods...When Craig inquired about bringing the equipment in to move it back, he was told the weight of the backhoe might break down the driveway."(John Updike, "Personal Archaeology" from "My Father's Tears and Other Stories") It's a verb, meaning to separate into pieces.

Breakdown:

  • "One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important." (Attributed to Bertrand Russell) It's a noun, meaning an emotional collapse.
  • "As ongoing losses of territory by the Confederacy resulted in a breakdown of the ability of public authorities to maintain law and order, local communities struggled to create some semblance of security." (William L. Barney, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Civil War) It's a noun, meaning a collapse of law and order.
  • It's hard to know how much the company has spent in total because the report doesn't provide an itemized breakdown. It's a noun, meaning a detailed analysis.

How to Remember the Difference

Here's a way to remember the two different uses:

  • If you need a verb to make your point, remember that "break" stands alone as a verb in the verbal phrase "break down." It's always used as a verb.
  • With "breakdown," the two words join together to create a noun, just as "build" and up" make the noun "buildup" and "down" and "turn" create the noun "downturn." It's always used as a noun.