Breakdown and Break Down

Commonly Confused Words

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 are clearly related in meaning, but one is a noun and the other is a phrasal verb.


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

The verb phrase break down (two words) means to go out of order, lose self-control, cause a collapse, or separate into parts. (This phrasal verb is pronounced with equal stress on both words.)


  • "One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important."
    (Attributed to Bertrand Russell)
  • "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. Oxford University Press, 2011)
  • It's hard to know how much the company has spent in total because the report doesn't provide an itemized breakdown.
  • "Firefighters fruitlessly tried to break down the door that led to the staircase to the Melody Lounge—the door that was supposedly equipped with a panic bar. Only with a battering ram were they able to smash the door open."
    (Stephanie Schorow, The Cocoanut Grove Fire.  Applewood Books, 2005)
  • "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. Delacorte Press, 2004)
  • "The bumper had knocked out, like a single tooth, a molar-shaped boulder that now sat some dozen yards into the woods—a permanent monument to a moment's mishap, too massive, in this weakling latter age, to be moved back into position. 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." My Father's Tears and Other Stories. Knopf, 2009)

Idiom Alert

The expression to break (someone) down means to force a person to agree to do something, confess something, or reveal secrets.
"Even under the best conditions, four to six hours of interrogation are required to break a suspect down, and eight or ten or twelve hours can be justified as long as the man is fed and allowed the use of a bathroom."
(David Simon, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, 1991)


(a) Our bodies have to _____ food to extract energy.

(b) A major _____ in communication between managers and employees led to a prolonged strike.

Scroll down for answers below.

Answers to Practice Exercises: 

(a) Our bodies have to break down food to extract energy.

(b) A major breakdown in communication between managers and employees led to a prolonged strike.