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In the New York Times’ (October 11) article titled, “Debating points, Vice Presidential Edition” dealing with Vice Presidential debates held on October 11, there was the following sentence:

“How are the undecided voters breaking after the first debate? Does the trend toward Obama, which began in mid-July, continue? It does. The still undecided voters continue to break for Obama by more than 2 to 1. Whether the wave that broke for Romney in most national polling after the debate will come later to our cohort, there is of course no way to know.”

I thought “break for” is just a casual idiom, and guessed it means to “go for / support” from the context of the above sentence. However, when I checked dictionaries to make sure of it, I was unable to find “break for” as an idiom in any of Cambridge, Oxford, and Merrimu-Webster dictionary.

Oxford registers “break away (down, forth, in, off, out trough, up, into),” but for “break for.”

Cambridge registers only “break away (off, up)” as idioms.

Merriam-Webster registers only break (down, in, off) as idioms.

Google NGram registers “break for,” whose usage is consistently upward since 1840.

I was barely able to find the following definitions of “break for something” in idioms.thefreedictionary.com/:

  1. to stop working for something else, such as lunch, coffee, etc.
  2. to run suddenly toward something; to increase dramatically one's speed while running.

But neither of the above definitions seems to be applicable to “the wave that broke for Romney in national polling”

Does “break for” in “the wave that broke for Romney” mean “go for / support” Romney, or otherwise? Isn’t “break for” an established idiom, though no major dictionaries carry the word?

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That is a curious turn of phrase. –  Matt Эллен Oct 12 '12 at 9:32
    
Isn't "break for" a phrasal verb for "start running towards..."? –  SF. Oct 12 '12 at 10:19
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TheFreeDictionary.com link calls it an idiom: Let's break for lunch, The deer broke for the woods. In the newspaper article, however, it's about an ocean wave of support for Romney. Big waves are called breakers and surfers ride them. If you get a good ride, then you can say that the wave broke in your favor. So, yes, your guess that it means "'go for/support' Romney" is right. –  user21497 Oct 12 '12 at 11:09
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@Yoichi: I think the second instance of "break" there isn't at all common outside the specialised jargon of pollsters and political reporters. It's okay in this context because we've already been primed by the first usage (effectively, "What's the breakdown by voting intention?"). But the third usage looks like a feeble attempt to make a play on words that doesn't exactly come off. I suspect this writer has a less deft touch with words than Maureen Dowd! –  FumbleFingers Oct 12 '12 at 22:55
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@FumbleFingers. Thanks for your mentioning Maureen Dawd, a fertility goddess who feeds me with abundant seeds for questions. I owe her a lot. As far as she is alive, I won’t find difficulty in finding a question for EL&U. –  Yoichi Oishi Oct 13 '12 at 0:24
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4 Answers

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This is a very complicated use of "break".

Fundamentally, you should parse this not as break for + X but break + for (in favor of) X, with break employed primarily in the sense it bears in the very first sentence you quote: "How are the undecided voters breaking?"

This is a somewhat unusual ergative use of break; it means "divide into two (or more) parts", but phrased in a manner which suggests (appropriately, I think)that the voters are "breaking" themselves rather than being broken (with a hint of broken down) by pollsters.

This use continues in the other instances, with the parts into which the electorate is broken identified as being "for Obama" or "for Romney"; but there is indeed the added overtone here of break for in the sense you cite of "move toward": some are breaking "for (toward) Obama", others are breaking "for (toward) Romney".

In the latter case there is yet a third sense in play: for a wave is said to "break" when it loses its cohesion and form on hitting the shore.

That said, I'm not at all sure that any of these subtleties is deliberate. They may be; or they may just be products of inattentiveness by the author.

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I think the use is metaphoric, but a mixed one. The first reference is

How are the undecided voters breaking after the first debate?

This gives the impression that the aggregate group of independent voters broke apart, some going to one candidate, some to the other (and perhaps some still not decided).

However later in the paragraph, there is a reference to a breaking wave, which sweeps the beach, crashes on the shore. It is often part of a storm. Things (elections?) can be swept away by breaking waves.

This reference is to a dramatic and forceful surge in several polls that Romney experienced after the debate.

While each image makes sense separately, I think the impression is muddled when used together.

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Absolutely agree. It beggars belief to suppose the writer "accidentally" used break with different connotations, but as you say - the net effect is muddled, not "witty". The breaking wave reference doesn't sit at all well with undecided voters breaking into two camps. –  FumbleFingers Oct 12 '12 at 22:46
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There is a meaning of 'break' that describes the movement of a ball in sports, maybe because of a spin, or the way it hits the ground. It can 'break' in a given direction, 'break left' or 'break right'. This can then be used only slightly metaphorically, meaning

to turn abruptly in one direction.

That is the meaning in the first sentence "How are the undecided voters breaking...?". It is not a phrasal verb. It is intransitive and can be modified with an adverb or prepositional phrase.

The later instances in your example text like "...voters continue to break for Obama..." just follows 'break' with the direction they 'broke'. It just sounds better to use 'for', which has the nuance 'in favor of' as opposed to 'to' which is more about spatial direction.

Then there is the following "...the wave that broke for Romney...". This is a very different usage of 'break'. Waves break when they reach the shore and 'fall over'. This is a very unfortunate conflation, a kind of misplaced zeugma. The repeated use of 'break for' doesn't sound particularly good.


As to formal support for this, the OED has only one entry that looks close:

32.

a. intr. To deviate or start off abruptly from a line or previous course; to project; to fall off.

and gives the (accurate to me) synonyms of: swerve, divert, turn aside, deviate.

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In statistics, especially things like sports statistics (politics is a spectator sport in this case), we have the phrase break down the numbers. This meaning of break down is in the sense of divide into smaller parts. Break down in this sense also means analyze or subject to analysis,

So, we take the aggregate of statistics of polled voters and break it down into three piles: the voters for Romney, those for Obama, and the "undecided". The article suggests that these undecided will on voting day be further broken into roughly a 1/3 part that will vote for Romney, and a 2/3 part that will vote for Obama. Hence, the undecided vote will break for Obama (break in Obama's favour) 2 to 1.

So in conclusion, the sense of break used here is the sense of separate into parts. The addition of for is merely used to indicate in whose favour the part is separated.

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