Break vs. brake?

To break” is to separate something into small pieces by force or make something inoperable. “To brake” is to slow or stop a moving mechanism.

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What is the difference between break and brake?

The words break and brake are homophones, meaning they sound the same but have different meanings and spellings:

  • To break” something is to smash, hit, crack, or shatter something into small pieces (often rendering it nonfunctional). 
  • To brake” is to slow or stop a moving object using a braking device. 

Brake and break also occur as nouns, but they tend to fall under the same definitions:

  • A “break” is a crack, fracture, or fragment in something that is separated or broken. 
  • A “brake” is a device used to slow or stop a moving mechanism (such as a car or bike). 

What does brake mean?

A brake is a device that slows or stops the motion of a mechanism by means of friction, but it can also be anything that slows or impedes a process. 

Example sentences:

  • “Once the motorist discovered his clutch was broken, he pulled his emergency brake to stop the car from hitting a nearby tree.”
  • “If the sled is moving too fast, just pull up on the brakes to slow down.”
  • “To save money, you need to hit the brakes on spending.”

The verb brake means “to slow or stop a mechanical device using a brake.” Verb forms include “braked” (past participle) and “braking” (present participle).

Example sentences:

  • “You need to brake the car before you hit the curb.” 
  • While he was braking, the back wheel of the bike fell off.”
  • “In an epic parking fail, I pressed the gas when I should have braked.”
  • “You can hear the driver braking the open horse carriage with his call.” 

Etymology of brake

Origins of the noun brake are attested, but it likely appeared toward the end of the 18th century. Lexico lists an archaic definition of “brake” as a 19th century variant of “break,” which is a bodiless, open horse-drawn carriage used to “break in” young horses. However, The American Heritage Dictionary lists “brake” in connection to a horse bridle or curb.

Similar connotations arise when the noun references a toothed instrument used to “break apart” flax and hemp or a machine that folds sheet metal. Either apparatus is thought to reference Middle Low German brake and Middle Dutch braak (or braeke), meaning “to break.” 

What does break mean?

In general, the verb break means “to separate into parts” or “make inoperable” through sudden force, shock, or strain. 

Example sentences:

  • “If you fall off the house, you could break your arm.”
  • “Road rash occurs when street pavement breaks the skin.”
  • “Use the shovel to break the soil and turn it over.”

Since “break” is an irregular verb, we use “broken” as the past participle, “broke” for the simple past tense, and “breaking” as the present participle. 

  • “My brother broke my Gameboy by throwing it against the wall.”
  • “I’ve broken my leg while skateboarding before.”
  • “I share my candy bars by breaking them in half.”
  • “We broke mom’s soap container by accident.”

When the verb “break” does not reference a physical injury, there are several ways we can interpret its meaning. Here are few common ways we can define break:

To violate a rule, law, or promise: 

  • “You are breaking the law.”
  • “Why did you break your promise?”

To burst through something:

  • “The spaceship broke through the sound barrier.”
  • “She broke every gender stereotype imaginable.”
  • Break on through to the other side.”
  • “While swimming, make sure your arms break the surface of the water.”

To escape one’s bind to something by will or force: 

  • “I helped him break out of jail.”
  • “We need to make a break for it and get out of here.”
  • “You must focus to break the spell.”

To disrupt order or one’s role: 

  • “The soldiers are in trouble for breaking formation.”
  • “The lead actor broke character during the play.”
  • “We broke away from the group.”

To exhaust, diminish, or defeat someone’s power or capacity:

  • “The captain’s cruel and unusual punishments broke everyone’s spirit.”
  • “He was broken by his drive to succeed.”

To train obedience or submission:

  • “You’ll need to housebreak your dog, so it doesn’t go to the bathroom indoors.”
  • “Ramsay Bolton broke Theon Grayjoy into becoming Reek.”

To suddenly halt, end, or suspend something: 

  • “Smoking is a tough habit to break.”
  • “Their giggles broke the awkward silence.”
  • “The power went out because you broke the circuit.”
  • “The couple broke up over the weekend.” 
  • “We break for lunch at noon.”
  • I’m taking a break from my hemp and flax smoothie diet.”

To share important information for the first time:

  • “I didn’t want to be the one to break the news.”
  • “The Star Tribune broke the story about Coronation Street’s Brooke Vincent last night.”
  • “She breaks stories through a Newsday blog.”

To diminish financially:

  • “Here are our favorite shoe styles that don’t break the bank.” 

To divide or separate money into smaller currencies: 

  • “Can you break a $100 bill?”

To stop a falling object from hitting the ground directly:

  • “He didn’t catch the cheerleader, but he did break her fall.”

To perform something innovative and beneficial:

  • “Officials break ground with vows to increase intensity around tackling climate change.”

To exceed expectations or a benchmark:

  • “Sha’carri Richards broke the record for the fastest female runner in the United States in June 2021.”

There are several other ways to define break, but the common denominator is that anything that “breaks” or is “broken” strays away from a norm or expectation (good or bad). 

Broke and broken as adjectives

As an adjective, the word broke describes someone or something that is completely out of money. For example, 

  • “After paying bills this month, we are completely broke.”
  • “College students are not the only adults going broke.”
  • “When it comes to Las Vegas, he says to go broke or go home.”

Meanwhile, the adjective broken describes someone or something as injured, unrepairable, despairing, having a rough surface, or showing an interruption of continuity (even in the context of spoken language). For example, 

  • “Have you ever had a broken arm?”
  • “There’s nothing we can do to fix this broken marriage.”
  • Many people felt broken during the pandemic and still do.”
  • “The road is full of broken paint lines.”
  • “She might have broken English, but I can understand her.”
  • “I keep tripping over the broken pavement.”

Break as a noun

When “break” occurs as a noun, it references anything that is separated, fragmented, or inoperable, such as:

  • A crack in a window (glass fragments)
  • A period of relief (segmented timeline)
  • An act of disobedience (separation from order or rule)
  • An open wound (a separation or rupture of skin)

Example sentences:

  • “Can we take a break from watching Michael Moore documentaries?”
  • “There’s a break in that old cowboy thing you keep on the shelf.”
  • “The storm caused a break in the phone line.”

Etymology of break

According to The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, the word break derives from Old English brecan (of Germanic origin). Old English brecan is related to Dutch breken and German brechen and shares a common Indo-European root with the Latin verb frangere (meaning ‘to break’) (Chantrell 68). 

Published examples of break

“On Monday, Netanyahu issued a response to the arrangement via video remarks in which he assailed the new government’s apparent break with his own strategy of acting unilaterally.” — Newsweek

“A water main break Monday morning at a key intersection in Norristown resulted in a boil water advisory for roughly 33,500 utility customers, according to a spokesperson for Pennsylvania American Water.” — The Times Herald

“That tradition remained intact this spring as the sport resumed after a two-year break due to the pandemic.” — Asbury Park Press

“Working successfully in these areas means breaking down silos between different jobs and skills….” — Los Angeles Times

“They’ll know it when they find it. As if their hearts can be broken any further.” — Wall Street Journal

“I broke up with my boyfriend of five years during quarantine, but not because we had fallen out of love.” — The New York Times

“A senior Russian aviation official has confirmed that the plane broke up in mid-air.” — The Guardian

Published examples of brake

“General Motors is recalling more than 221,000 vehicles because of a parking-brake defect that can cause brake pads to stay partly engaged, which can lead to excessive brake heat that may result in a fire…” — The New York Times

“Britain is seeking an “emergency brake” to allow countries which are in the European Union but outside the euro zone to delay decisions that could threaten their interests, the Financial Times reported.” — The Business Insider

“The sheriff said that there were no skid marks or signs of braking and that the golfer’s vehicle hit the center divider and a curb and sheared off a tree in the rollover crash.” — Los Angeles Times

“A back wheel and part of the braking system fell off a Delta Air Lines plane during takeoff from Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport last week, Israeli television reported Sunday.” — The Times of Israel

“In the first fatality, a passenger riding on the back of a moped in Brooklyn fell off after the driver braked suddenly.” — Wall Street Journal

Additional reading for break vs. brake

If you enjoy learning about homophones like break and brake, be sure to check out similar lessons by The Word Counter:

Test Yourself!

Test how well you understand the difference between break vs. broke with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. True or false?: The word braked is the past tense form of break.
    a. True
    b. False
  2. A “break” is a ______________.
    a. Result of a blow
    b. Shattered glass
    c. A rupture
    d. All of the above
  3. “To brake” is to ___________. 
    a. Slow the motion of a wheel
    b. To accelerate a moving vehicle
    c. Impede a process
    d. A and C
  4. Which of the following is not a past participle or past tense form of “break” or “brake”? 
    a. Broken
    b. Braked
    c. Breaked
    d. Broke
  5. The verb break originates from ____________. 
    a. Several old germanic languages
    b. Old English brecan
    c. Middle Low German brake
    d. Late Middle English bracken

Quiz Answers

  1. B
  2. D
  3. D
  4. C
  5. B


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