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Read this sentence from the New York Times:

*Alberto Contador of Spain, a two-time winner of the Tour de France, quit the race Monday after breaking his leg in a fall during the 10th stage.*

It's beyond doubt that Alberto was quite serious for that race and he certainly wouldn't break his own leg on purpose!

I know it's common to say, "She broke her arm." which simply means that some accident happened and her arm got broken.

The scene is a wicked girl who does not want to participate in a compulsory competition of writing an essay. A day before the day, she breaks her finger and gets an exemption! It's simple, her concern is solved.

But here, "She broke her finger" will be different, here, you need to put "She broke her finger herself."

It's quite clear that subject + verb certainly means the subject is the one who's performing the act.

I did my homework - I, myself, did my work.
I kissed my cat - I, myself, kissed her.

But then...

I broke my leg - I, myself, broke my leg?
I wounded my arm - I, myself, made a wound on my arm? (As in that girl's case?)

So, the question...

If I broke my arm, why am I punished for a thing that I did not do at all? Curse a puddle on the road for that! Why is it not I got my arm broken? or, if I want to show the culprit, A puddle broke my arm as in He broke her arm.

What sort of grammar is it? Does it have any fancy jargon? :)

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I don't understand why "I broke my arm" equates to "I am being punished for a thing that I did not do at all." It's, at worst, being held responsible for something. Except it isn't even that. It's just how the construction is. –  David Richerby Jul 19 at 17:05
I wonder if it's related to www-psych.stanford.edu/~lera/papers/who-dunnit.pdf this study where English speakers are more aware of which person accidentally breaks an object because we only say "X broke the object" and not "the object broke (itself)" –  user8674 Jul 19 at 21:56
@DavidRicherby you surely did not get my tongue in cheek comment. ;-) for you the straightforward question is he broke my arm vs. I broke my arm. And then I broke my arm and I broke my toy as I wasn't happy with it. –  Maulik V Jul 20 at 4:10
@MaulikV, perhaps you are not a native English speaker? Because your tongue in cheek comment does not translate well. –  GreenAsJade Jul 20 at 6:23
@MaulikV Tongue in cheek doesn't come across well in text. And puddles don't break people's arms: people break their own arms by being careless and slipping while walking through puddles. Perhaps a better example would be that we'd still say "Contador broke his leg in a crash" even if that crash was unambiguously caused by Smith, wheareas "Smith broke Contador's leg" would imply that Smith intentionally did it. –  David Richerby Jul 20 at 8:41

3 Answers 3

From The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), p.306-7:

break occurs only transitively in the context of records or laws/rules (He broke the 100m record, but not *The 100m record broke), and with a body-part object a matching subject will generally be interpreted as experiencer rather than causer (I've broken my arm).

The NYT sentence is fine. As the explanation in CGEL suggests, Alberto Contador is the experiencer rather than the causer. Although your interpretation is technically possible, it's all but ruled out by the presence of in a fall, which suggests it was accidental.

Alberto Contador of Spain, a two-time winner of the Tour de France, quit the race Monday after breaking his leg in a fall during the 10th stage.

If you remove in a fall, you can make your interpretation more likely by adding own:

Alberto Contador of Spain, a two-time winner of the Tour de France, quit the race Monday after breaking his own leg during the 10th stage.

If you add an adjunct like "on purpose", "intentionally", or "accidentally", it doesn't matter whether you remove in a fall, because the adjunct overrides the implicature of the phrase:

Alberto Contador of Spain, a two-time winner of the Tour de France, quit the race Monday after breaking his leg on purpose during the 10th stage.

Alberto Contador of Spain, a two-time winner of the Tour de France, quit the race Monday after breaking his leg on purpose in a fall during the 10th stage.

In your other example, She broke her finger, there's no phrase like in a fall to suggest that it was accidental. As a result, it's more open to interpretation than the NYT sentence. It could be accidental or intentional, and we probably decide which it is based on context.

Again, we can suggest or force your interpretation by adding own or an adjunct like "on purpose":

She broke her own finger.
She broke her finger on purpose.

I don't think adding herself makes the meaning clear.

By the way, there's a very large range of constructions and verbs where the subject is not typically the actor. The most obvious counterexample is the be-passive, in which the actor is typically unspecified or given in a by-phrase.

If you want a fancy grammatical term for your examples with break, try non-agentive.

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She intentionally broke her own finger... She accidentally broke her own finger. –  Kevin Fegan Jul 20 at 1:33
@KevinFegan Right, own makes the "intentional" reading more likely, but doesn't force it one way or the other. If you add an adjunct like intentionally or accidentally you make it explicit and force a particular reading (intentional or unintentional). Thank you for the additional examples! –  snailboat Jul 20 at 1:41

If you say you broke something, that doesn't necessarily mean you did it on purpose. You can break things accidentally. For example:

I broke my pen.
I broke my camera.
Sorry, I broke one of your plates.

In all of those cases, it could have been an accident.

I think that's just the way the verb to break [something] works. It doesn't have to be intentional. It's the same thing if you broke your leg. You didn't do it on purpose, but you still broke it.

I think maybe we say it like that because if you break something, it's you that is doing the breaking. If you slipped and broke your wrist, it would have been an accident, but you were still involved. Your actions led in some part at least to your wrist being broken.

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I don't agree with your last paragraph. When I say "he broke his arm", I'm not making any assertions about how his arm was broken. It would still be a perfectly true statement even if what actually happened is that he was asleep in bed when a plane crashed into his home and broke his arm. –  ruakh Jul 20 at 2:01
@ruakh, you said the "plane ... broke his arm." ;) Language is rarely 100% precise. There will always be gray areas. –  Dangph Jul 20 at 2:53
I know what I wrote, and I wrote it intentionally. What's your point? Do you really think that there is exactly one way to say something, and that if "the plane broke his arm" is correct then "he broke his arm" must be incorrect? Please. –  ruakh Jul 20 at 5:40
@ruakh, like I said, it's a gray area. Did you break your arm, or did the plane break your arm? Frankly I don't really care. –  Dangph Jul 20 at 5:50

I have some fancy word or two for you. Middle voice is what we're looking at here. It's not a characteristic, but also an not altogether uncommon characteristic of English. Compare:

He bakes the bread.
The bread bakes (in the oven).

Conceive of it like this: English verbs really like to have subjects. More importantly, if there is no subject, you usually can't have an object either; this is why when you do a passive sentence, the old object suddenly is the subject:

He bakes the bread.
The bread is being baked.

We can say when you omit the subject, the old object is automatically promoted to the subject status, just because sentences really don't like being without their heads. Sometimes, this leads to various forms of verbs where the subject is not an agent (click the link for some extremely fancy words). Usually, this is being dealt with by the passive or the reflexive. In a few cases however, English allows us to drop the subject and promote the agent without changing the verb at all, a leftover of a grammaticalized middle voice of earlier stages.

The take-home message is that being a subject does't mean you're the agent. It just means you're much more likely to be the agent than anybody else, such as regular direct and indirect objects. The subject usually is on the top of the pole, but sometimes, the pole is rather short.

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