I was writing the following sentence:

"you should break this long paragraph into smaller ones."

For a moment, I wondered whether I should add something between paragraph and into.

I searched on Google and I found three variations:

break this long paragraph up into

break that long paragraph down into

And my original version.

Maybe all of them are the correct answer? But when, how do they differ?

2 Answers 2


All alternatives are perfectly natural, and it would be overscrupulous to suppose any difference in meaning (or even fine nuance of meaning) attaches to the choice. But the general principle is always simpler is better / less is more, so I suggest you stick with the majority of native speakers...

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It might just be worth pointing out that you can break [some complex entity] up (or ...down) without actually specifying the "lower level parts" that would thereby result. As the results from this NGram for break the problem [nothing / up / down] and show, if no such "resulting smaller parts" clause is specified, the most common "phrasal verb" form is break [something complex] down.

For contexts where the "smaller parts" are unspecified, you must include one of the prepositions. It's natural to speak of cracking a problem (solving it), but you wouldn't normally crack a paragraph unless it was some kind of cryptic text that you'd successfully decoded.

It's an extremely fine nuance, but I think I can reasonably say that to break X up is more natural when focusing on the end result being that X ceases to be the "coherent whole" that it was. Whereas to break X down works better when focusing on the smaller parts that will thereby result.

  • I'd have to disagree. up does have some force.
    – TimR
    Jan 31, 2019 at 16:30
  • Having just watched Puzzle (2018) last night, a possible usage preference occurs to me in the context of a completed jigsaw on the dining room table. I'll break the puzzle up and set the table for dinner (end result -, the completed puzzle is history, going back into its box), as opposed to I'll break the puzzle down and time how long it takes to complete it again (end result - the pieces are all there ready to be "re-used" in another session). Jan 31, 2019 at 16:52
  • Thanks for your answer. Would you please provide some solid reference, such as widely recognized online dictionary or grammar book?
    – JJJohn
    May 18, 2020 at 14:01
  • @JJJohn: The two "phrasal verbs" to break up and to break down both have quite a range of different meanings - some of which in some contexts overlap with the usage involving the other preposition. Anyone who doesn't already know most / all of those different meanings (i.e. - just about all non-native speakers) can easily just google define "to break up" (or ...down"). But my example above is a very extreme "subtle nuance" that might not even be recognised by many/most native speakers, let alone explicitly stated in an authoritative reference book. May 18, 2020 at 15:17

I would quibble with the statement by FumbleFingers which says that up is vacant of meaning there.


You should break this paragraph.

You should break this paragraph up.

There, the difference is clear. To "break something up" means to cause it to become separated, whereas "to break something" means to fracture it. broken up is the end-state of something which has been broken: not only is there a fracture but the pieces are apart.

When you add into separate pieces, then you have two things in the statement which convey the idea of "apart", the particle up and the prepositional phrase, so it may seems as if up has no force, when into separate pieces is pleonastic. That's like saying "Mush this into a mush."

To break something down is to decompose it.

  • From my own answer: For contexts where the "smaller parts" are unspecified, you must include one of the prepositions. Personally I don't find your first (prepositionless) version acceptable at all, but I did go to some trouble to explain that without some additional clause such as into smaller sections there's a (quite fine) distinction between the overtones of break up and break down (both of which can also have radically different meanings in other contexts, of course). Jan 31, 2019 at 16:43
  • down is a red herring. The question is break versus break up.
    – TimR
    Jan 31, 2019 at 16:55
  • I don't know what you're getting at. Have you actually read my answer? Jan 31, 2019 at 16:56
  • Yes, I read your answer. I'm disagreeing with the question as formulated by OP and with your answer.
    – TimR
    Jan 31, 2019 at 16:58
  • I'm still lost. I know I switched from paragraph to problem in my analysis, which arguably might make some slight difference. But the fact of there being an into clause definitely makes a lot of difference, to my mind. Which is why I'm saying I don't much like your first example - with no into, it simply doesn't sit well with me to talk about just "breaking" [paragraphs, problems, sentences, whatever] where the sense is "dividing into smaller parts". Jan 31, 2019 at 17:09

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