Lexeme confusion

Some time ago, John Wells reported on Facebook:

Friday’s London Evening Standard, reporting on the inquest into a fatal collision between a bus and a cyclist: “[The] bus driver … told police ‘As he started to turn, the bike slipped from under him. I broke … and he went under. I could feel him. I broke and put the handbrake on…'”.

There’s a confusion here between the lexemes BRAKE and BREAK, which are homophonous in their BSE/PRS forms. But not in their PST forms: BRAKE with regular PST braked, BREAK with ablaut PST broke.

The homophony leads to spelling confusions, usually with the much more common verb (break) prevailing over the less common (brake). In the Evening Standard quote, this confusion extends to the morphology, with the PST of break prevailing over the PST of brake (in both speech and writing).

The use of break for brake is incredibly common, and in many places that are clearly not meant as jokes. In particular, in the bumper sticker I break for animals:

Two examples on the hoof:

I was recentley involved in an accident where I skidded into the back of the car in front. When we’d pulled over the other driver admitted It was his fault and he shouldn’t have breaked for ‘something running in front of his car’ I realise I am at fault as I went into the back of him, but are there any laws on not breaking for animals on an A road? (link)

Someone who always breaks for animals in the road and may even stop the car to escort a slow turtle across the road. (link)

The confusion of BREAK and BRAKE (in favor of forms of BREAK) is in fact encouraged by the semantics of BREAK, a verb whose basic uses (‘separate or cause to separate into pieces as a result of a blow, shock, or strain’ – NOAD2) extend to an interruptive transitive (‘interrupt (a continuity, sequence, or course): the new government broke the pattern of growth | his concentration was broken by a sound) and then to an intransitive verb of halting (‘stop proceedings in order to have a pause or vacation: at mid-morning they broke for coffee), at which point its semantics overhaps substantially with the halting sense of BRAKE.

xx

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