I have a question about the usage of "break" and "break up". Suppose the context is police dealing terrorist organization.

  1. Police broke several major terrorist organizations.
  2. Police broke up several major terrorist organizations.

Dictionaries seem to suggest that both "break" and "break up" are okay in this context. But what do native speakers think? Is either one better?

Also, in a separate context of a meeting:

  1. The meeting broke at noon.
  2. The meeting broke up at noon.

Are both sentences 3 & 4 the same? Or is one of them wrong?


Based on gut feeling as a native English speaker, the first example is comprehensible but not correct.

In this case, what is being destroyed is dispersed into parts. The destruction is also implied to be intentional. Groups may be broke up, as well as objects.

  1. The United Kingdom may break up. (The UK will be divided into England, Scotland, etc.)
  2. Mary broke up her cookie to share. (The cookie was divided into pieces and handed out.)
  3. Justin broke up his band. (The band is now dissolved into its individual members.)

Break, however, implies unintentional destruction of something which is not dispersed.

  1. The program may break from the new code. (The program will not work, but it won't disperse.)
  2. Mary broke her cookie. (The cookie's parts weren't handed out.)
  3. Justin broke his family. (The family is hurt, but still together.)
  • 2
    "Break, however, implies unintentional destruction" - no it doesn't. For example, martial artists break bricks intentionally, while saying they "break up" bricks would sound highly unusual. Jun 24 '16 at 23:17
  • I'd argue it does imply unintentional destruction, but you are right that one can certainly break things intentionally. I struggled with how to delineate "break up" from "break" and one thing I settled on was the intention of the act.
    – eijen
    Jun 25 '16 at 20:44

Break up is a phrasal verb that means something like "destroy, disrupt, or stop" or "break into pieces or cause to disperse". For example, "The teachers broke up the fight between the boys", or "The meeting broke up without ever reaching an agreement."

Break (among its many meanings) can also mean "to cause to stop functioning" or "to destroy", as in "I broke my dad's computer" (meaning that I caused it to stop working, not that I literally broke it in pieces) or "The enemy division was broken by repeated artillery shelling."

Obviously, there are a lot of shades of meaning, and they can overlap a lot! To this native (US) speaker, "the police broke up several major terrorist organizations" sounds like a much more natural, idiomatic choice. Organizations are, by definition, made up of multiple parts working together, and breaking them up means that they are destroyed as organizations. You can see this phrasing used a lot in the news:

Police break up unruly crowd at UCLA's 'Undie Run'
Kazakh police break up anti-government protests
Czech police break up document forgery network

  • I added extra material to my original post. Would kindly offer comments on that too? Thanks!
    – meatie
    Jun 24 '16 at 18:54
  • For a meeting, either is possible, but they mean different things. "The meeting broke up at noon" implies, to me, "the meeting dispersed at noon" but "the meeting broke at noon" implies "the meeting took a break at noon." You would usually hear that in a context like "broke for lunch at noon". I told you break has a lot of meanings!
    – stangdon
    Jun 24 '16 at 19:13

Some of these descriptions should be re-visited.

I would describe "Break" as: "the cease of original function of something that was singular in concept".

"Break up" implies "cease of collective function of something with multiple parts via dispersion".


  1. The lovers broke up - two people decided to live separate lives, dispersing in different directions. We can say that their hearts were broken though
  2. I broke my iPhone screen when I dropped it - the screen has also 'broken up' into many pieces but we say that it's function (purposes served) is broken.
  3. The CIA broke up a terrorist cell (group) by turning the groups members against themselves. - when the group breaks up, its members leave and the group is now dispersed. The original plans and function of the group could be considered broken due to the group's dispersion.

So the context really matters. Hopefully these examples give you more intuition into when both terms are used in the English language.

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