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What is the difference between "broke" and "be broken" in the following?

The pot broke as I kicked it.

The pot was broken as I kicked it.

  • You may find it helpful to visit our sister site English Language Learners, where such questions as when to use the past and when the past participle of a verb would be appropriately discussed. – WS2 Jul 15 '15 at 7:24
  • Added tags. It seems this may also be about passive voice. – Brian Hitchcock Jul 15 '15 at 8:01
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The first is sometimes called an unaccusative verb. While similar to the passive participle in the second example, they are semantically distinct.

The passive construction overtly implies an agent which caused the event; this agent could be animate or inanimate, such as in "The window was broken by the storm."

In contrast, the unaccusative form does not imply an agent. The meaning is more vague, and could suggest that the noun in question seemingly broke spontaneously with no cause.

However when you explicitly communicate the cause of the breakage through the adjunct "as I kicked it", this semantic distinction almost disappears.

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There is no appreciable difference in meaning. However, your first example

  • The pot broke as I kicked it. is clearer, and a more common phrasing.

Your second one

  • The pot was broken as I kicked it.

is slightly ambiguous, for three possible reasons:

  • 1) "was broken" can be read as passive, yet the sentence says that you (actively) kicked it.

  • 2) "was broken" can be taken as a participial modifier (describing the state of the pot, not the action on it); almost as if the pot was already broken.

  • 3) "as" is occasionally construed as "because" rather than "while", yielding "The pot broke because I kicked it." (which is true, but not exactly what you meant.)

In fact, the pot became broken when you kicked it. Or in other words, it broke. So the first way is clearer.

Note: In some languages, reflexive verbs are used when things are damaged, as if things "cause" damage to themselves. In Spanish, for instance, "la olla se rompió" (literally, the pot broke itself) or "el vaso se cayó" (the glass fell itself). Not so in English. Either

  • {I/you/he/she/somebody} broke it or dropped it (transitive verb)

Or

  • it was broken or was dropped (by someone unnamed—passive verb),

Or

  • It simply broke or dropped (not blaming anyone—intransitive verb).
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  • Can I say like this? The pot broke/ The pot became broken/ The pot got broken as I kick it. – Nwei Myint Maung Jul 15 '15 at 8:19
  • We don't usually say "became broken"; I was just using that phrasing to explain. "The pot {broke/got broken} {as/when} I kicked it" are all good. – Brian Hitchcock Jul 16 '15 at 6:09
  • In case when you kicked a pot, the pot didn't break at the time of receiving a kick, however impact made it fell off the stairs and break when falling to the floor... Wouldn't be the second form more appropriate? – macraf Nov 12 '15 at 12:08
  • Would you translate ""la olla se rompió" as "The pan broke" or "The pan was broken"? – Frank Schwieterman Aug 14 '19 at 19:06

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