The Grammarphobia Blog

Is your English busted?

Q: What about using “busted” for “broken”? I was taught NEVER to do that, but now I always hear things such as “He has a busted leg.” I realize usage, and grammar, evolve but what do YOU think about this?

A: How acceptable is using “bust” for “break” (and “busted” for “broken”)? That depends on the dictionary you consult.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) calls this usage informal, and the Oxford English Dictionary labels it colloquial (that is, more suited to speech than writing).

But at least one dissenting voice, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), accepts it as standard English without reservation.

Since you asked our opinion, we’ll tell you. We agree with American Heritage that a sentence like “He busted a leg skiing” is too informal for polished written English, but it’s OK for informal speech.

However, some other meanings of “bust” and “busted” are more widely accepted and can be used without apology in writing as well as speech. Here’s the story.

The verb “bust” got its start a couple of hundred years ago as an “r”-less pronunciation of “burst.” As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, this pronunciation was “apparently common in many dialect areas in the 19th century and earlier.”

In those days, the verb “burst” had more meanings than it does today. In addition to its most common modern meaning, to explode, “burst” meant to break or smash. So when the “bust” pronunciation came along, It too conveyed those meanings.

The OED credits the American explorer Meriwether Lewis with the first recorded use of the verb “bust.” In 1806, during the Lewis and Clark Expedition, he wrote in his journal: “Windsor busted his rifle near the muzzle.”

In the mid-19th century, Charles Dickens used “bust” in the sense of “burst” in his novels.

The OED gives one example from Nicholas Nickleby (1839): “His genius would have busted all bounds.” And it cites two examples from Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44): “Keep cool, Jefferson. … Don’t bust!” and “If the biler [boiler] of this vessel was Toe bust, Sir.”

Soon, “bust” and “busted” acquired more meanings.

People began using “busted” to mean bankrupt (first recorded in 1829); demoted or reduced in rank (1918); and placed under arrest or raided (1953).

And they used “bust” to mean punch or slug, a usage the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang traces back to 1873. (P. G. Wodehouse used it artfully in his 1919 novel A Damsel in Distress: “I shall infallibly bust you one on the jaw.”)

All the senses of the verb “bust” are more or less informal sounding. But which are considered standard English? Again, this varies from dictionary to dictionary.

Merriam-Webster’s is the most lenient, accepting nearly all the modern meanings of “bust,” even “to bust one’s chops” (give someone a hard time) and to “bust one’s butt” (to work hard or exhaust oneself). M-W  regards only one sense of “bust” as slang: to arrest.

American Heritage regards “bust” as informal when it means to smash, break, or render inoperable; to reduce in rank; or to arrest. (It labels the busting of chops and butts as “vulgar slang.”)

If there’s a safety zone for “bust,” it consists of usages that both dictionaries consider standard—that is, the ones they list without reservation.

These senses get two thumbs up: to bring an end (“bust the monopoly”); to tame (“bust the bronco”); to bankrupt or ruin financially (“bust the budget”); to hit or punch (“bust him in the nose”); and to explode (“laugh fit to bust”).

And that busts our budget of information.

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