Commonly Confused Words: Break vs. Brake

blog home

In today’s Commonly Confused Words post, we’re going to take a look at our first set of homophones: break and brake.

To learn more about homophones click here, and to read the other posts in our Commonly Confused Words series, click on the following links: accept vs. except, bought vs. brought, and lose vs. loose.

What does each word mean?

The word break is usually used as a verb to describe the act of separating something into pieces (usually as the result of a blow, jolt, or shock of some kind), or as a noun to describe a pause or interval from usual ongoing activities. For the full Spellzone definition of the word, click here.

Here is the word used in some example sentences:

  • That vase is very fragile – make sure you don’t break it!
  • After working solidly for three hours, we took a break for some tea and sandwiches.
  • They drove at record-breaking speed in order to reach the party on time.

Brake, on the hand, is most often used in reference to the act of slowing down, hindering, or stopping a process. In the case of vehicles, the word is both used as a noun to describe the actual device used to slow down and stop, and as a verb to describe the act of slowing down or stopping itself. For the full Spellzone definition of the word, click here.

Here is the word used in some example sentences:

  • At the bottom of the hill, the cyclist had to brake hard to stop himself from crashing.
  • The new company legislation will put the brakes on unnecessary spending.

Where does each word come from?

According to The Online Etymology Dictionary, both break and brake come from the same origin, which explains why the words are so similar. •

  • Break comes from the Old English ‘brecan’ which means: “to break, shatter, burst; injure, violate, destroy, curtail; break into, rush into; burst forth, spring out; subdue, tame”. ‘Brecan’ comes from the Proto Germanic ‘brekan’.
  • Until 1868, when brake was first used in the sense of slowing down a wheel, the word referred to a type of “instrument for crushing or pounding”. It comes from the Middle Dutch ‘braeke’ which means “flax brake”, and in turn comes from the Proto Germanic ‘breken’. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary the word was “influenced in sense by Old French brac, a form of bras "an arm," thus "a lever or handle," which was being used in English from late 14c., and applied to "a bridle or curb" from early 15c”.

Are there any tricks to help remember the difference between these words?

The difficult part about figuring out whether you need to use break or brake is remembering where you need to put the letter e.

Without the e, both words spell brak. With this in mind, it might help to think about the meaning of the word when you’re deciding where to place the e:

  • Are you referring to an interval or the act of splitting something into pieces? In this case, you need to think about breaking brak into two pieces (i.e. br and ak) so that you can fit in your e: break. Say to yourself: The e breaks the word brak in half.
  • Or are you talking about the act of slowing down or stopping a process? In this case, you need to think about using the e to end brak, to stop the letters from going on.

If you have any other tips for remembering when to use break and when to use brake, we’d love to hear from you.

Happy Spelling!

Avani Shah

27 Jan 2014
blog home

"Spellzone fits in beautifully with our Scope and Sequence of Phonological Awareness and Spelling. It also aligns perfectly with the four areas of spelling knowledge and uses the Brain, Ears, Eyes approach to learning spelling."
Thank you!

Teacher, Australia