KA WORDCAST: Idioms and Phrasal Verbs Lesson 34: GIVE ME A BREAK!

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KA WORDCAST: Idioms and Phrasal Verbs

Lesson 34: Give Me A Break  

Gimme a Break: Nell Carter

In each lesson of KA Wordcast: Idioms and Phrasal Verbs, we introduce you to some important English expressions and make sure you know how to put them to effective use in your own writing and speaking.  As you might have guessed from our opening song, today’s expressions are based on the verb BREAK.  There are dozens of BREAK-related phrasal verbs and idioms, but today we will look at only the most common and useful—the ones you are most likely to come across in books, movies, TV shows, news broadcasts, and social media exchanges.

This lesson is available to download in PDF format.  To test your knowledge of today’s phrases before the lesson begins, take the quick “pre-test” that is downloadable from our website.  Then, after the podcast, use the answer sheet to see how well you did.  Always keep in mind that the best way to boost your English speaking and writing skills is to review and practice what you’ve learned, over and over again … which is what KA Wordcasts are all about.

Phrasal verbs and idioms are a little different.  To put it in a nutshell, a phrasal verb is an idiomatic expression made up of a verb and another element such as a particle, preposition, or combination of both.   An idiom, on the other hand, is a combination of words whose figurative meaning is separate from its literal or real meaning and is often impossible to figure out just by looking at it.




Most literally, to BREAK THROUGH something means to physically force your way through something that is preventing you from moving forward.

Several young ticket holders tried to BREAK THROUGH the security lines and be the first to get into the concert arena.

The pond behind the cabin is completely frozen over, so to go fishing, we’ll have to BREAK THROUGH several inches of ice.

More figuratively, to BREAK THROUGH means to successfully deal with or solve some difficulty or problem that is keeping you from getting ahead or making progress.  Overcome is the nearest equivalent.

Medical researchers believe they have BROKEN THROUGH in their quest to find a vaccine for the Ebola virus.   

My company holds “Equality Awareness” seminars to try to BREAK THROUGH gender prejudice, but as a young woman, I’m still expected to serve tea to my male bosses!

The related noun BREAKTHROUGH refers to a discovery, development, or achievement that comes after a lot of hard work.  Advancement, revolution, and progress are the nearest synonyms.

No specific timeline has been given, but scientists predict a major BREAKTHROUGH in cancer research within this year.

The BREAKTHROUGH in one of the longest games in Major League history came in the bottom of the nineteenth inning when backup pinch hitter Mark Jacobs hit a walk-off solo homerun.




The phrase BREAK DOWN has several everyday uses.  Most literally, to BREAK DOWN something such as a door or wall means to hit it so hard that it collapses.

Firefighters had to BREAK DOWN the front door to get into the house and rescue the three small children trapped inside.

On November 9, 1989, ecstatic citizens using picks and other tools began BREAKING DOWN the 28-mile-long wire-and-concrete barrier known as the Berlin Wall.

When a machine or vehicle BREAKS DOWN, it stops working or malfunctions. Some informal equivalents include conk out, go kaput, and die, and give out.

“Could you come and pick me up?”  Jenny said over the phone.  “My car BROKE DOWN on the highway, and I have no way of getting home.”

I couldn’t make photocopies of the documents you asked for because my copy machine BROKE DOWN last night.

The related noun BREAKDOWN refers to the failure or malfunction of a machine or vehicle.

The BREAKDOWN of the plane’s computer system meant that the pilot had to fly the plane manually.

To BREAK DOWN can also mean to divide something into smaller parts.

The best way to learn Japanese kanji characters is to BREAK them DOWN into groups according to their main radicals and to memorize them one group at a time.

The initial cost of installing solar panels may seem high, but when you BREAK it DOWN over several years, it is actually very reasonable.

When some substance BREAKS DOWN, it separates into its various parts.

It takes several hours for your body to BREAK DOWN and fully digest red meat.

A Yale chemistry student has discovered by accident that a certain fungus can BREAK DOWN plastics and help reduce plastic-waste pollution.

When someone BREAKS a machine or vehicle DOWN, he/she separates it into its component parts.

To qualify as a master automobile mechanic, you have to be able to BREAK an engine DOWN and then put it back together again.

To BREAK DOWN can also mean to take action to overcome an obstacle or difficulty.

The school board aims to BREAK DOWN barriers between parents and teachers by creating more opportunities for friendly discussion and interaction.

To BREAK DOWN can also mean to start crying, especially in front of others.

Sheila BROKE DOWN in front of all her classmates when she learned that she had failed the entrance exam to her top-choice school.

While making an apology during the press conference, the disgraced Senator BROKE DOWN and ran off the podium.

BREAKING DOWN and having a good cry now and then is your body’s natural way of relieving built-up stress. 

People can also BREAK DOWN, which means to become mentally or emotionally troubled due to stress or other difficulties.

Most people would BREAK DOWN under the kind of pressure the president has been dealing with during the crisis, but she doesn’t seem to be affected at all.

What with all the troubles she’s had recently, it’s not surprising that Margaret BROKE DOWN.

The related noun BREAKDOWN is a mental condition characterized by extreme unhappiness or the inability to act rationally or to take care of oneself.

Manny, who has always been nervous and emotionally fragile, suffered a BREAKDOWN and had to drop out of college.




In its most common usage, to BREAK UP means to end a relationship, especially a romantic one, although it can also be used to talk a business partnership.

I can’t believe that Lucy and David BROKE UP.  I thought they had the perfect marriage.

There are rumors that the popular band is BREAKING UP because of artistic differences among its members.

The related noun BREAKUP refers to the end of a serious relationship.

After Ginny and Tom’s BREAKUP, they both were being very cautious getting involved in steady relationships. 

When a meeting or party BREAKS UP or is BROKEN UP, it starts to come to an end.

The talks between the flight attendants’ union and the airline didn’t BREAK UP until well after midnight last night. 

The Halloween party BROKE UP quite early since everyone had to catch the last train.

In the end, police had to be called in to BREAK UP the anti-immigration demonstration when it threatened to turn violent.

To BREAK UP a fight means to stop it.

Danny had to be taken to the emergency room after he was injured trying to BREAK UP a fight on the playground.

If something being said on the radio or a cell phone BREAKS UP, it goes in and out and becomes difficult to hear or understand.

Can you repeat that?  You were BREAKING UP, and I missed the last part of what you said.

For some reason, my Skype call to my sister in Seattle kept BREAKING UP. 

BREAK UP also means to divide something into smaller parts.

BREAK the chocolate bar UP into small pieces and heat it in a double-boiler until it melts.

To BREAK UP my workday, I usually go for a walk around the block just after lunch.

When something falls apart or disintegrates, it is said to BREAK UP.

According to the airline’s investigation, high winds caused Flight 1234 to BREAK UP in mid-air.

After the long hard winter, the ice on the river is finally BREAKING UP.

In British English, schools BREAK UP at the end of a term or semester.

When does your school BREAK UP for summer?

We flew to Tokyo on the day after school BROKE UP for the winter holidays and returned to the UK on January 2nd




If a part of something BREAKS OFF, it becomes separated from the main part.  If you BREAK OFF a piece of something, you remove it from the main part.  Detach is the nearest synonym.

Part of the chimney BROKE OFF in last night’s storm, slid down the roof, and landed on top of my dad’s car parked in the driveway.

Icebergs are created when chunks of ice BREAK OFF from a glacier.

To soften that hard crusty bread, BREAK OFF a piece and dunk it into the soup.

BREAK OFF can also mean to end a romantic (or other) relationship, or to cancel some discussion or negotiations.

Lillian BROKE OFF her engagement to Hank when she realized that he expected her to give up her career and stay at home.

The president decided to BREAK OFF all relations with the country in light of its human rights violations.

The peace talks BROKE OFF when one side got up and walked out.




To BREAK IN (or INTO) means to make a forcible or illegal entry into a house, building, or safe.

When the Stephens got home after the play, they found that burglars had BROKEN IN and stolen all their electronic devices.

How the thieves BROKE INTO the bank’s supposedly failsafe vault is still a mystery.

The noun form derived from the phrase is BREAK-IN.

Officer Davis is investigating the BREAK-IN that occurred at the jewelry store on Tring Road between 2:00 and 3:30 a.m. last night.

After the fourth attempted BREAK-IN, we decided to sell our house and move to a safer neighborhood.   

BREAK IN can also be used to mean to interrupt someone when he or she is speaking.

“I’m sorry to BREAK IN, Professor Harting, but your husband is here, and he says he needs to talk to you about an urgent matter.”

James rudely BROKE IN on Susie and Hillary’s private conversation. 

Do you mind if I BREAK IN?  I couldn’t help overhearing you talking about the new Hobbit movie, and I’d like to join in. 

To BREAK IN also means to make an article of clothing or a new pair of shoes fit better and become more comfortable by wearing them for a while before actually using them.

Why don’t you try wearing your new soccer shoes around the house for a day or two to BREAK them IN before the big game?

It takes several washes before a new pair of Levis are BROKEN IN. 

I’m still BREAKING IN my new baseball mitt.  It’s still pretty stiff.

You can also BREAK IN a new employee or trainee.

Smith was supposed to BREAK me IN, but he wasn’t very good at explaining things, so I practically had to learn the job on my own.



BREAK INTO can mean to suddenly start doing something such as laughing or singing, often unexpectedly or without planning.

All the children in the cinema audience BROKE INTO song the moment Queen Elsa of Frozen started singing “Let It Go.”

Greg had always considered yoga a soft, “girly” sport, but when he BROKE INTO a heavy sweat just a few minutes into his first workout, he changed his mind.

When the announcement came that Tokyo had been chosen as the site for the 2020 Olympics, people all over the country BROKE INTO cheers and tears.

BREAK INTO can also mean to begin practicing an activity, profession, or business with the hope of becoming successful at it.

Unless you know someone prominent in the business, it is nearly impossible to BREAK INTO the Hollywood movie scene.

We hope to BREAK INTO the Chinese market by opening up a satellite branch of our English prep school in Shanghai.




To BREAK AWAY means to separate or detach oneself from a group, usually because of disappointment or a change of outlook.

The young Diet member, discouraged by his party leader’s increasingly right-wing stance, BROKE AWAY and ran as an independent in the next election.

Several members who had been unhappy about the reading choices decided to BREAK AWAY from the group and form their own book club. 

BREAK AWAY can also mean to move quickly ahead of others in a race.

At the 22-mile mark, Adubebe BROKE AWAY and finished the Honolulu Marathon far ahead of the second-place runner.

BREAK AWAY also means to forcibly get away from someone.

Jessica tried to BREAK AWAY from her attacker’s grip, but he held on to her tightly and wouldn’t let her go.

The rookie wrestler deftly BROKE AWAY from the powerful left-hand hold Hakuho had on his mawashi and then shoved the surprised yokozuna out of the ring.

Finally, to BREAK AWAY means to stop practicing some custom or tradition.

Modernist writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf aimed to BREAK AWAY from literary conventions and to create new forms of storytelling.

The popular television series centers on several young teens that are eager to BREAK AWAY from Amish tradition and experience life outside of their small Pennsylvania community. 




In its most common usage, BREAK OUT means that something bad such as a war, riot, or disease has begun.

My mother was born in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido just a few months after the Pacific War BROKE OUT.

Students were evacuated from the school after a fire BROKE OUT in the kitchen.

When the university tuition hike was announced, student riots BROKE OUT all across the country.

The Ebola virus first BROKE OUT in West Africa.

The related noun OUTBREAK refers to the sudden start of a war, disease, or violence.

The OUTBREAK of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, also known as SARS, is believed to have begun in the Guangdong province of China in November 2002. 

 More than one hundred people have fallen ill following a suspected salmonella OUTBREAK that originated at a street market food vendor in Sao Paulo. 

When your skin BREAKS OUT, it is affected with a rash or other eruption.

I only realized that my children had chickenpox after they BROKE OUT in a rash after having had high fevers.

Whenever Ryan eats peanuts or chocolate, he BREAKS OUT in pimples the following day. 

To BREAK OUT also means to escape from prison.   The related noun is BREAKOUT.

“Prison Break” is an American television series that revolves around two brothers who plan to BREAK OUT of prison to escape the death penalty.

Citizens of the small farming community were on high alert after two dangerous criminals BROKE OUT of the high-security prison located just outside of town. 

“We are reporting live from outside Walla Walla State Prison, where a mass BREAKOUT of 24 inmates occurred just hours ago.”

The adjective BREAKOUT is commonly heard these days when describing an actor’s performance that makes him or her a star.

Freeman’s role as a struggling stand-up comic was the BREAKOUT performance that brought her international fame and her first Academy Award.




When you MAKE A CLEAN BREAK, you leave or get away from some person or situation quickly and completely.

Sometimes, to move forward with our lives, we need to MAKE A CLEAN BREAK with the past.

Harriet decided it was time to MAKE A CLEAN BREAK from her abusive husband.

Adriana knew that the only way she could MAKE A CLEAN BREAK from her Mafia family was to seek help from the FBI. 



10.                BREAK THE ICE

How do you ease or lighten up a tense atmosphere or overly formal social situation?  You can do it by BREAKING THE ICE, that is, by being the first to speak up or make a humorous remark.

“If no one else will BREAK THE ICE, I will,” Paul said when none of the other seminar members volunteered to read their papers.

At a party or other social gathering, a simple trivia quiz is an easy way to BREAK THE ICE and get people talking. 

At last night’s office karaoke party, Sandra BROKE THE ICE by being the first to get up and sing. 

Sam’s joke about his terrible grades in high school BROKE THE ICE and allowed the rest of us in the therapy group to open up about our own failures.

BREAK THE ICE can also mean to try to become friends with someone by making a friendly gesture.

William tried to BREAK THE ICE with the nurse by making a funny remark, but she didn’t appreciate his offbeat sense of humor and didn’t even crack a smile.

When meeting new people, sometimes a friendly smile is all you need to BREAK THE ICE.



11.                BREAK EVEN

When you BREAK EVEN, you gain an equal amount of money to what you have spent or invested.

My company just BROKE EVEN last year, which means I won’t have to pay any tax.

“The cost of hiring a DJ alone means that we’ll need to sell at least two hundred tickets just to BREAK EVEN,” Jenny told the dance committee.

What with travel and lunch expenses and before- and after-school childcare, most working mothers barely BREAK EVEN each month. 


12.                BREAK FREE

BREAK FREE means to separate or detach yourself from a particular person, group, or background.   The phrase also has technical or scientific uses, as in the third sample sentence below.

Finally, at the age of 34, Kim decided it was time to BREAK FREE from her parents and become independent. 

It wasn’t until I BROKE FREE of my family’s religious beliefs and hometown conservatism that I was able to think for myself and see the world objectively.

In physics, “escape velocity” is defined as the speed an object needs to reach to BREAK FREE from the gravitational pull of another object. 



13.                BREAK WITH TRADITION

To BREAK WITH TRADITION means to do something differently from how it is usually done.

This Christmas, rather than staying home and eating Mom’s homemade roast turkey dinner, we’re going to BREAK WITH TRADITION and go out to a Chinese restaurant.

We always spend our summer holidays on the Devon coast.  But this year, why don’t we BREAK WITH TRADITION and try going somewhere more exotic? 

The phrase can also be used as a noun, as in:

In a surprise BREAK WITH TRADITION, the Nobel Prize in Literature was given posthumously to a Peruvian poet who died earlier this year.




To TAKE A BREAK simply means to stop working or to relax for a short time.  Some related expressions include take five and take a breather.

Sometimes I get so caught up in my painting that that ten or twelve hours will go by without my having TAKEN A BREAK.

I’ve been staring at my computer for I don’t know how long, and my eyes are killing me.  I’m going to TAKE A little BREAK and go up on the roof and enjoy the view.

The discussion was becoming increasingly heated, with some members shouting insults at one another, so the chairman wisely decided it was time to TAKE A BREAK.



15.     GIVE ME A BREAK!

GIVE ME A BREAK is a very popular informal expression that you can use to say, “Don’t be so hard on or critical of me!”  It can also mean,  “Please!  Give me another chance!”

“GIVE ME A BREAK, Mom, and stop being so critical,” Dylan shouted.  “I’m doing my best.”

“Please officer,” Rory pleaded,  “I’m sorry for running that stoplight, but can’t you GIVE ME A BREAK?  My husband has just been rushed to the emergency room.”

I’m hoping my English teacher Mrs. Ferguson will GIVE ME A BREAK and let me turn in my essay assignment a day or two late.

GIVE ME A BREAK can also mean “That’s enough!  Stop bothering me!”

“GIVE ME A BREAK and stop bugging me,” Noah said to his little brother Jonah.  “I’ll come out and play catch with you as soon as I finish my homework.”

If only my kids would GIVE ME A BREAK for a moment.  I can’t even have a cup of tea without one of them interrupting me and asking me for something.

You can also GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK by not being so hard on or critical of yourself.

I decided to GIVE MYSELF A BREAK and stop worrying about what other people think of me, and to just be myself.

“Why are you being so hard on yourself?” my husband asked me.  “You’ve done nothing wrong.  Stop feeling so guilty and GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK.”



Now that you have a good understanding of all the key phrases we have looked at today, you can go back and check out your score on the “pre-test” exercise.  How did you do?


PDF DOWNLOAD KA WORDCAST- Idioms and Phrasal Verbs Lesson 34 GIVE ME A BREAK!