Funner and Funnest

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Sun May 28 18:21:25 UTC 2006

On May 25, 2006, at 10:05 AM, Larry Horn wrote:

> At 10:00 AM -0400 5/25/06, Baker, John wrote:
>>   M-W already allows "sometimes funner" and "sometimes
>> funnest."  American Heritage, in contrast, still cautions that
>> writers
>> may want to avoid the use of fun as an attributive adjective, as in a
>> fun time, a fun place - a usage that seems to me to be entirely
>> unremarkable.
> The thing about these last two uses [well, one use with two
> examples] is that they don't unambiguously involve *adjectival*
> occurrences of "fun".  The "fun" of "fun place"
> can instead be an attributive or modifying noun, resulting in a
> noun-noun compound.

indeed.  i can't see any evidence that early occurrences of "fun" as
an attributive modifier -- the OED has cites back to the mid-19th
century -- were anything but nouns (as they are, still, for me).  if
you can say things like "it was a very fun party", then you have
"fun" as an adjective.  (you will, of course, also have the noun
"fun".)  in any case, i think the AHD usage note is just wrong on the
grammatical point, but it's in good company, as you can see by
looking at the MWDEU entry for "fun".

attributive uses of the noun "fun" (parallel to attributive uses of
some other nouns -- "a giant party", "a monster parade", "a killer
idea") are one possible source of an adjective "fun".  but surely the
major contribution comes from predicative uses of the noun "fun", as
in "the party was fun".  these have been around, so far as i can tell
from the OED, since the noun "fun" appeared, in (roughly) the early
18th century.  when predicative "fun" is unmodified (or is modified
by an expression like "more", which can be either determiner or
degree adverb), as it probably is most of the time, there's no
evidence as to whether it's an predicative mass noun (not an
especially common phenomenon) or a predicative adjective (common as
dirt).  so there's pressure for reanalysis all the time.

when predicative "fun" is modified by an adjective like "enormous" or
a determiner like "a lot of" or "such", then it's clearly a noun.

once you start to get predicative "fun" modified by degree adverbs
like "very" and "so", then you're looking at adjective uses.  these
were probably around for some time without attracting notice -- no
doubt someone has looked at the history (it might even be in whitney
tabor's 1994 stanford ph.d. dissertation, which i don't have to hand
at the moment) -- until the extremely visible comparative and
superlative appeared (at least 25 years ago), and people started
complaining, often and loudly.

just yesterday i came across some very puzzling grammatical advice
about "fun", in Fine & Josephson's _More Nitty-Grammar Grammar_
(2001).  in the section on comparative adjectives (p. 58), we get the
syllable-count rules: for one-syllable words, use "-er" or "more",
etc.  but there's a special exception clause:

   Don't add er to some one- or two-syllable words, like "fun."
Instead of "funner," say, "more fun."

   more ancient (_not_ "ancienter")
   more wrinkled (_not_ wrinkleder")

similar rules are given on the next page for superlative adjectives,
again with an exception clause:

   You can't add est to some words, like "fun."  Instead of
"funnest," say, "most fun."

this misses a useful generalization (it fails to make the connection
between words that don't take -est and those that don't take -er);
it's not very helpful (how is the reader supposed to know *which*
one- and two-syllable words don't have inflectional forms?); and it
seems mostly directed at proscribing "funner" and "funnest", which
could surely have been done by just saying that "fun" shouldn't be
used as an adjective, right?  i mean, why is "fun" even *in* the
sections on comparative and superlative adjectives?  (note that the
advice to use "more" and "most" avoids the problem of noun vs.
adjective, since these words double as determiners and degree adverbs.)

alas, the authors are much more confused than these sections would
indicate.  back in the section on Adjective Pitfalls (p. 16), they
tell us about "fun", which they say "used to be strictly a noun",
illustrating this use with "Kirsten had fun at Moana's wedding."  so
far so good.  but they go on to say that "in casual speech, 'fun' has
turned into an adjective", saying:

Moana's wedding was fun.  (Adjective: modifies noun "wedding.")
fun finger foods     fun little dress     fun time

the predicative "fun" in the first example is no more problematic
than *any* occurrence of the noun "fun" (dr. johnson objected in
general to the noun "fun" as "low cant", and it might still have some
tinge of informality to it for some speakers, but there's nothing
special about the predicative use).  and for a great many current
speakers predicative "fun" is demonstrably (still) a noun, a fact
that the authors failed to notice in their rush to condemn "funner"
and "funnest".

arnold (zwicky at

The American Dialect Society -

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