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September 27th, 2004

Buses or busses? / fused participles

by Barbara Wallraff

Brenda Morris, of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., writes: “I see the word ‘busses’ used to indicate more than one bus. I have always thought the word should be ‘buses’ -- as in ‘uses,’ ‘refuses,’ ‘abuses,’ ‘accuses,’ etc. Your comments please?”

Dear Brenda: You’re right about the preferred plural of “bus.” But can we talk about why it’s preferred? The words you give as similar cases are pronounced with a long u (“yoo”), while “bus” is pronounced with a short u (“uh”). People who write “busses,” I suspect, are trying to make sure the word doesn’t look as if it rhymes with “uses,” “refuses” and so on. Or they figure that the word does rhyme with “fusses,” “musses” and “discusses” -- so why shouldn’t it have a double s?

Well, the uninflected forms of these double-s words also end in a double s: “fuss,” “muss,” “discuss.” More important, “buss,” too, is a word. It means “kiss,” as both a noun and a verb. If we’re going to be able to tell kisses and public transportation apart (I sure hope we can!), we’d better save “busses” for the former meaning and use “buses” for the latter.

Kristin Bergstad, of Enfield, N.H., writes: “I know that it’s correct to say ‘my having done something’ (not ‘me having done’) or ‘this reveals Tom’s taking an interest’ (not ‘Tom taking an interest’). But what is the name of this rule of grammar? And can you explain it?”

Dear Kristin: “Fused participle” is the term that old-style grammarians use. It applies to what you get when you break the rule. The grand old British grammarian H.W. Fowler gave these three example sentences when he explained the rule in his book “Modern English Usage”:
“Women having the vote share political power with men.” Here “women” is the subject of the sentence, “having the vote” is a participial modifier with the same meaning as “who have the vote,” and “women” is nicely parallel with “men.” No problem.

“Women’s having the vote reduces men’s political power.” Here “having the vote” is the subject of the sentence. (If you wonder how that can be true, consider “Having the vote is a good thing. So is using it.” Words like “having” and “using” can serve as nouns, and when they do, they’re called gerunds, not participles.) This time “women’s” and “men’s” are possessive modifiers, and the two of them are nicely parallel. The grammar of “women’s having the vote” is just like the grammar in your example phrases.

“Women having the vote reduces men’s political power.” Aha! Here’s a fused participle. Is the subject of the sentence “women” or “having the vote”? You can’t have it both ways. We couldn’t say “Women reduces men’s political power,” so “women” can’t be the subject. But then why is it sitting there at the beginning of the sentence looking like a subject?

That’s the general rule. Every now and then grammar needs to take a back seat to “idiom,” or what sounds normal. Or so argued the American language authority Theodore Bernstein in his book “The Careful Writer.” He wrote, “Some ‘fused participles’ will simply have to remain fused.” For instance, consider the phrase “that happening” in an example Bernstein gave: “What are the odds against that happening?”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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