Is it possible to use a verb in the -ing form with these phrasal verbs? I mean, dictionaries I use contain only some exemplary sentences with a noun following the phrasal verb (break/burst into laughter, break into a smile, burst into tears), but in google there are also sentences with "break into laughing/smiling etc.).

And my second question: are these two phrasal verbs always interchangeable or are there some restrictions? Are these two phrasal verbs identical in terms of their use?

  • 1
    Finding something “in Google” means next to nothing: anyone can find anything “in Google”, and many people do. There are so many non-native speakers scribbling non-native English out there, that finding good examples of bad English is trivial. What would be best here is corpus citations, but failing that, you should look for citations from actual books and printed publications by native speakers. You can look in Google Books, but you have to look carefully.
    – tchrist
    Commented Apr 4, 2013 at 17:37

4 Answers 4


"Break/burst into" would usually be followed by a noun. You "break into some thing". A "thing", of course, is a noun. Using the gerund form of a verb (i.e. -ing), would not normally be used and it doesn't really sound right


To answer the second question first, no, they're not quite the same.

  • break into means (literally) 'to enter a place by destroying its door'
    as well as (figuratively) 'to change one's behavior suddenly and radically'

  • burst into means 'break into', but it's punctual,
    (i.e, It took him an hour to break into the house is OK
      but *It took him an hour to burst into the house isn't)
    with an invited inference of fragments flying around, due to the sudden entrance.

On the first question, Michael Roy has it right.

The object of either phrasal verb should be a noun phrase, not a clause.
One breaks/bursts into a smile -- a noun phrase,
not into an infinitive like (to) smile or a gerund like smiling.

  • Examples of breaking into doing something are so hard to come by that I wonder whether there isn’t interference between the notion of suddenness from break/burst into “fighting against” the notion of progressiveness of the -ing word. I can only seem to find ones for a somewhat different sense of break into, like “I was hoping to break into playing backup drums for nightclub acts this summer.”
    – tchrist
    Commented Apr 4, 2013 at 17:41
  • Short for break into [a job] playing backup drums .... People often use gerunds as job names. But they're NPs. Commented Apr 4, 2013 at 17:45

I've already come across the question concerning what may follow break into:

break into (allowable complements)

The multi-word verb break into has various senses and takes various complements - but there are sense-dependent restrictions on the varieties and actual choice of the noun groups etc that may be put after the MWV. (I'm avoiding classification of the noun groups etc as, for instance, 'direct object' because there is no consensus on the grammar involved.)

First, let's disambiguate, as Wikipedia usually sensibly starts off by doing:

(0) The glass vase broke into a thousand pieces. isn't a usage of the multi-word verb - this is just break followed by a prepositional phrase.

Now, listing possible complements and senses for the MWV break into:

(1) count nouns (or nouns nearer the count end of the spectrum):

(a) (breaking and entry) The thieves broke into a / the bank.

(b) (rapid acceleration to high speed) The horse broke into a gallop.

(b') (sudden switch to more dashing activity) Fred and Ginger broke into a tango.

(c) (rapid switch to more feverish state) Ted broke into a sweat.

(2) non-count nouns (or nouns nearer the non-count end of the spectrum):

(a) (sudden start of an activity) They broke into song / applause. [though notice that broke into a song is also allowable]

(b) (to interrupt) No one would have dared to break into his abstraction.

(c) to enter (a field of activity / career) (a degree of difficulty having to be overcome): He eventually broke into journalism. [though notice that broke into a career in sculpting / journalism is also allowable]

However, there are further restrictions: (2a) would seem to license 'broke into singing', whereas the only meaning allowed for this clause is the (2c) sense, where 'singing' is a gerund and parallels 'acting' or 'banking'. 'Ted broke into knitting' is ridiculous. In fact, the number of nouns sense (2a) accepts is very small - even amongst semantically sensible ones.

  • It seems to me that the only reason that "trying to break into knitting" seems ridiculous is because there is an implication of intense competition in the knitting market. "She is trying to break into acting" is so common as to be unremarkable.
    – horatio
    Commented Apr 4, 2013 at 20:05
  • I was assuming that nobody would use 'knitting' for 'the knitting industry' - a Google search for "job in knitting" shows extremely few relevant hits (in fact, only 24 hits of any sort). This would leave the - ing-form knitting with only the usual sense, as for reading - the sedentary, often fireside, activity.. If you prefer another example, 'Ted broke into shouting' is ridiculous. Commented Apr 4, 2013 at 20:38
  • At my family reunions, one might get the impression that shouting is an occupation.
    – horatio
    Commented Apr 4, 2013 at 20:39

In old movies, quite incredible things happen when a couple falls in love.

The couple would break into chasing around trees and bushes.
The souk would burst into haggling and yelling.
Their love would abruptly burst into a wedding.
And then the wedding would abruptly burst into dancing.

But then their loving relationship would turn into a misunderstanding.
Then one party would be accused of having broken into cheating.
Then the poor girl and her sisters would break into boo-hoo-hoo crying.
While the whole clan would burst into jeering.

And then all's well that end's well when all in the family would break into smiling.

Much ado about nothing but a couple of gerunds.

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