26 September 2014

buses / busses

What is the plural of 'bus'? I have always thought it was 'buses'; but then someone sent me something that included the word 'busses', so I thought I'd better look it up. And my New Webster's Dictionary allows both.

However, I still felt that 'buses' is more common, so I checked in the Corpus of Contemporary American English. There are 5354 tokens of 'buses' and just 119 tokens of 'busses', which confirms that 'buses' is the usual plural, but 'busses' does sometimes occur.

The next question is: why would 'busses' occur? After all, it is not usual for 's' to be doubled in creating a plural.

The explanation for this is that 'bus' is rather an unusual word in English, as words that end in /s/ after a vowel are generally spelled with a double 'ss': 'miss', 'hiss', 'fuss', 'mess', 'toss', 'pass', 'dress', 'press', 'cross', 'grass', 'gloss', 'glass', 'class', 'floss', 'bliss', 'stress', 'address', 'abyss', 'across' etc. The only words that I can think of that have a final /s/ and are spelled with a single 's' are: 'this', 'thus', 'us', 'pus' and 'cos' (a kind of lettuce).

In contrast, most words that are spelled with a final 's' after a vowel are actually pronounced with /z/: 'is', 'was', 'has', 'does', 'as', 'his', 'hers', etc.

Furthermore, in the middle of a word, 's' between two vowels is often pronounced as /z/: 'these', 'those', 'phase', 'please', 'raise', 'rise', 'hose', 'lose', 'nose', 'fuse', 'muse', 'rouse', etc, though there are quite a few exceptions is which the 's' is pronounced as /s/: 'case', 'mouse', 'dose', etc. In fact, there are some words in which the medial 's' may be pronounced as /z/ if the word is a verb but as /s/ if it is a noun or adjective: 'use', 'house', 'close'.

In conclusion, it seems that 'busses' is actually not a bad way to spell the word, even if it is not very common, as it clearly indicates that the medial consonant is pronounced as /s/ not /z/.

12 September 2014


Some mistranslations are just amusing, while others could have rather more serious consequences.

I saw this on a hand drier in one of the toilets at UBD:

The advice to 'place your hands in and out of the machine' sounds potentially lethal!

In contrast, this advice elsewhere on the same notice is not quite so dangerous:

The trouble with this one is that 'hang down' is an intransitive verb – it cannot take an object, so, for example, you cannot *'hang down your clothes in the wardrobe'. In consequence, as 'things' cannot be the object of 'hang down', the instruction must be that you should not yourself hang down from the machine. I guess people are not really likely to try and do that!

09 September 2014


My UBD colleague, James McLellan, sent me a link to an article published in the on-line Borneo Post of 4 September 2014 (here), discussing the actions of some people in Sarawak who want to secede from Malaysia.

Unfortunately, instead of 'secession' (= the act of seceding, or formally withdrawing), the fourth paragraph of the article mentions 'the cessation movement', and 'cessation' means 'stopping'. So it means that the movement wants Sarawak to stop!

In fact, 'secession' /sɪ'seʃən/ and 'cessation' /se'seɪʃən/ are pronounced almost identically, so the confusion is not too surprising. Nevertheless, one would have thought that a copy-editor might have checked it.

Or perhaps the Deputy Home Affairs Minister of Malaysia really did use the word 'cessation', and the Borneo Post is quoting him accurately.