In the phrases "break open" and "break [sth.] open", is "open" an adjective or an adverb? Is it an adverbial or a complement?

For example:

The pods broke open and the seeds scattered on the wind.

The police broke open the door.

The burglars broke the locked safe open.

  • 3
    @Archie: Break is clearly a verb, not an adverb. Break is the part that is conjugated: the pod breaks open, not break opens. Aug 30, 2016 at 1:16
  • 3
    What is the significance of the gender tag to this question?
    – Lawrence
    Aug 30, 2016 at 1:37
  • 2
    Break open is a phrasal verb. Phrasal verbs are composed of a verb and a particle. In break open, break is the verb and open is the particle. Aug 30, 2016 at 2:19
  • 1
    @JohnLawler so is that particle an adverb? If not, I'd better retract my answer as it'd be misleading ! Aug 30, 2016 at 2:20
  • 1
    I'm now beginning to wonder if this is a case of "franisaw" is "a crobel modified by the anterior pedoble" --- meta.ell.stackexchange.com/questions/3191/… Aug 31, 2016 at 1:38

2 Answers 2


[EDIT - post comments] Before reading my answer, please review the links John Lawler provided in the comments above. It's here for convenience: https://english.stackexchange.com/search?q=user%3A15299+phrasal+verb I am not so convinced my answer is sufficient based on his and user:deadrat 's comments below and those above, but I'm leaving my answer here as an example of what seems to be a common misunderstanding, an over simplification, of a more complex subject.

All those forms are based on "broke open," making open an adverb. How was it broken? It was broken open.

Similar constructions, e.g.:

The police bashed in the window.
The police broke up the protests.

( Not sure, if this is considered a compound form ?)

But if you had, say:

The guard closed the open door.

then open would be an adjective. What kind of door? An open door.


The word open has a lot of definitions as different parts of speech. Its primary entry for Webster's is that of an adjective; however, scrolling down under this definition, you'll see also that it can function as an adverb.

Thus, break open would be diagrammed as:

break | open

verb | adverb

It is not a complement (break is an action verb here, not a linking verb, and adverbs are not used as objects). It is adverbial. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/adverbial


Also, http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/open

The definition of open as a noun doesn't seem to fit "break open"; again, omitting it as an object

Since adverbs modify adjectives, verbs, and other adverbs, this one is modifying break and like an adverb, it answers a question about the verb that an adverb would ask, " What?" "Break what?" Open.

For example,

This is the police! Open the door, or we'll break open the door! [They'll break the door, but not how, but what are the police going to do with or to the door (they will use extreme force to open the door) and (of course here, "door" is the direct object)]

"Break down" the word down is the more common expression they would use, but here too, down is an adverb, the noun definition doesn't seem to fit.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.