Breakdown vs. Break Down: How to Choose the Right Word

It depends on whether you need a verb or a noun

breakdown and break down
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, in this case an adverb) meaning to go out of order, lose self-control, or separate into parts or decompose. 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. An organism

Examples

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

  • The accountant will break down the budget and present the breakdown to all the board members. Here, break down refers to the action the accountant takes in separating the parts of the budget; it's a verb phrase. The result of her effort, the document she presents to the board members, is the breakdown. It's a noun.
  • Feeling the car break down after it hit the giant pothole was enough to send Peter into a breakdown. Break down describes the action of the car as it goes out of order; it's a verb phrase. Peter's breakdown is the result of the overwhelming emotions he feels when his beloved '64 Mustang turns into scrap; it's a noun.
  • Sara's husband was afraid she would break down and cry, and it wouldn't be the first breakdown she had suffered. Break down refers to Sara losing the ability to function normally because of stress; it's a verb phrase. The result of Sara's reaction to stress is a breakdown. It's a noun.

How to Remember the Difference

To remember the difference, decide whether you want to convey an action or a "thing," the result of an action. If it's the former, you need a verb; if it's the latter, you need a noun. Then, consider that:

  • 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. So if you need a noun, pick breakdown. It's always a noun.
  • In break down the word break stands alone, and break usually conveys action; more often than not, it's a verb. So if you need a verb, break down is the right choice. It's always a verb.
  • To help you recall that break down is the verb, remember that you can make break down past tense: or broke down, because the verb break is separate from the adverb down. You can't make breakdown past tense. You can also put nouns between the two words, such as break the wall down.

Musical Breakdown

A breakdown in music can mean many things, depending on the genre. In many formats it refers to the musicians playing solo parts, or breaking down the music into its components. In heavy metal it can mean a slow, heavy part of the song, and in American country it can mean a lively, shuffling dance.

Sources