I think the verb form broken is only used for fragile things. Can I use it in connection with something that is not fragile, like sandals, shoes or clothes?

If it's not possible, what shall I use in its place?

  • This is a general reference question, because the most elementary meaning of broken is "Fragmented, in separate pieces" without any reference to whether the thing broken is fragile. Eg: "The train locomotive was broken in the crash". – James Waldby - jwpat7 Aug 8 '12 at 6:01
  • @jwpat7 Going by the answers, perhaps not. – coleopterist Aug 8 '12 at 6:48
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    The OED has this note at the beginning of its entry for the verb ‘break’: ‘Many of the uses of this verb are so contextual, that it is difficult, if not impossible, to find places for them in a general scheme of its signification’. – Barrie England Aug 8 '12 at 6:55
  • This question might be a better fit for our proposed sister site for English language learners. – RegDwigнt Aug 8 '12 at 9:18
  • It's only right to say "my sandals are broken" if you've broken both of them. Otherwise, just say, "My sandal is broken." :^) – J.R. Aug 8 '12 at 9:25

Of course you can say “broken sandal.” None of these authors had a problem with it. This blogger even took a picture of hers:

enter image description here

Side note: One definition of broken is “not is working order” (see Collins #7).

  • In my answer I mentioned that if something can be split apart into pieces you can say broken. In the picture it is evident that the straps are a completely different part from the sole. However in this case, where I live (Canada), I would more likely hear someone say, "My sandals are worn out, the strap broke." – Bill Rosmus Aug 8 '12 at 16:49
  • @BillR: The picture from the blogger is just one amusing anecdote; the dozens of published references to broken sandals are harder to explain away. While I partly agree with you (I have a hard time imagining myself saying, "My shirt is broken, my sneakers are broken, my left sock is broken"), I can't agree with the assertion that something must be split into pieces in order to be broken. Plenty of "unfragile" things can be broken, like radios, printers, washing machines, promises, and treaties. (Horses, too - but that means something altogether different, I suppose.) – J.R. Aug 8 '12 at 19:19
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    When I was answering I had a different picture in my head when I saw 'sandals'. In North American anyway, sandals are generally more shoe-like. Leather or something more resilient than soft rubber. And they have more straps which can be delicate like on a woman's dress sandals or rugged for regular or sports use. The straps are generally made of leather or tough nylon in these cases. In the picture is what in North America we would call a 'flip flop' (a pair of flip flops). We used to call them 'thongs' 30 years ago. But now those go on a bikini. :) Flip flops can break. Sandals wear out. :D – Bill Rosmus Aug 14 '12 at 6:06

You should be able to use the word broken to describe shoes and sandals provided that there is actually a break (like a heel coming off), or something that affects their structure (like a split in the sole). The definition of "break" that we are primarily interested in is:

Fragmented, in separate pieces.

"Broken shoes" is a term often used as the following Ngram demonstrates: Google NGram for "broken shoes"

If it's only a tear rather than a break, then you would use a word like torn. In that sense, clothes are only torn or ripped and never broken. The same applies to similar items such as paper.

As Barrie has observed in a comment, and as attested by ODO, break has a number of meanings which can change depending on the context. You can for example also break in a new pair of shoes which is something that is done to make said shoes more comfortable. Once the procedure is complete, the shoes have effectively been broken in.

  • +1, but, just to be clear, your link is to 'Oxford Dictionaries', not the OED from which I quoted. That's here: oed.com. – Barrie England Aug 8 '12 at 7:45
  • @BarrieEngland Fixed. Cheers :) – coleopterist Aug 8 '12 at 8:03

I tend to agree with Pantalones. But I would say that break or broken generally applies to things that are capable of being rendered into two or more pieces, and in general only to things that are rigid (but not necessarily hard). However, there are some notable exceptions like rope, tethers, straps, etc.

For instance, you can break a strap on your sandals, but you would "wear out" their soles. Taken as a whole the sandals would be "worn out", not broken.

The interesting thing is that saying they are worn out means they are not capable of being used any longer. If they are damaged and are repairable, people will normally say, "My sandals are in need of repair", or "I have to get my sandals fixed", or, "They need to be fixed". You wouldn't say "they're broken", you'd say "they need to be fixed/repaired". Someone might say "Oh, you broke your shoes!", but they would be having fun with the language by saying something that doesn't sound right to most people.

Clothing is generally handled the same way. The difference is that with things made of cloth or other flexible material you will say they are "torn" if rendered into two or more pieces, even if only partially so.

A different usage would be if you said your car was broken, most people would take it to mean that a part of it isn't working. In other words, something that is part of the whole. If the car is just old and no longer works because everything is failing, you can say, "The car is just worn out". To add to the confusion though, an old euphemism for worn out and no longer usable is, "broken down", but you can understand it from the context in which it is used. If used in the context of a new car, it just means broken. If used in the context of an old man, broken down could mean he is on his last legs, that is extremely frail or going to die soon.

  • I'm not so sure I'd say, "My sandals are in need of repair" (at least, that wouldn't sound any more "right" than, "My sandal is broken"). Moreover, if a sandal needs to be fixed, then it's broken. You mentioned car engines, but what about broken hearts and broken marriages? The word is far more flexible than you've indicated here (have a look); you can say broken sandal without breaking any rules. – J.R. Aug 8 '12 at 9:32
  • The strap on my sandal is broken. My shoelace is broken. – bib Aug 8 '12 at 12:35
  • In the picture it is evident that it can come apart into multiple pieces. As I said in my answer if something can be split into parts or is made of parts saying it is broken is OK. I was thinking of leather sandals with leather straps. Like shoes I wouldn't say they are broken, I'd say they are worn out. I have never, ever heard someone say, "my shoes are broken." And I have lived 50 years in Canada and it is my first language. – Bill Rosmus Aug 8 '12 at 16:47

When used in reference to physical objects, to break is usually used with objects having a degree of hardness.

The wrestler broke a table over his opponent's head.

I was climbing the tree when the branch broke, then I fell and broke my arm.

The window was broken with a crowbar.

It would be possible for a speaker to use the verb with physical objects which are not hard, though in such cases the speaker would likely intend its use to be as a humorous device.

My brain is broken.

In so far as your sandals, shoes, and clothing are not hard, it is inappropriate to use the word "broken" to describe them.

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    I completely disagree. The strap on one of my sandals could break. And if it did I could say, "My sandal just broke." – Jim Aug 8 '12 at 6:21
  • The argument being made in that comment is that if an object has a part which can be described as being broken, then the object itself may also be described as such. Although a listener may deduce that what is meant is that the breakable part of the object is broken, such usage is not correct or natural. One does not say "My sandal just broke" without elliciting double takes. – Pantalones Aug 8 '12 at 6:53
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    Whether, "My sandal just broke" sounds wrong to you is something you'll have to decide. It sounds completely natural to my ear and is something my daughter has actually said on several occasions. (She goes through sandals at a rapid pace.) As far as other examples how about, "The rope broke" or "My belt broke" – Jim Aug 8 '12 at 6:56
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    Condescension?? Here is where I did a double take. – Jim Aug 8 '12 at 7:34
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    Broken can be used with almost any item. Shoes and sandals definitely come within this category, although as coleopterist said, clothes are generally ripped or torn rather than broken. – Rory Alsop Aug 8 '12 at 8:09

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