Fun with Funner and Funnest
Posted by Neal on September 20, 2008
Today I listened to Grammar Girl’s podcast from last week: “Is ‘Funnest’ a Word?” She began:
Today’s show was shoved into our editorial schedule because of a grammar emergency. Steve Jobs said “funnest” on Tuesday in his keynote address about the new iPods, and people all over the Internet freaked out.
She then traced the history of fun starting with its uncontroversial status as a noun, as in I had fun or lots of fun. Some people accept fun as an adjective, she reported, but only grudgingly, and only as long as it knows its place, and doesn’t go trying to gain full adjective rights and privileges by taking on comparative and superlative forms with the -er and -est suffixes. Fewer people, mostly younger speakers, accept fun as an adjective without reservation, including the forms funner and funnest.
During the entire podcast, I kept wondering why GG didn’t mention that she herself used fun as an adjective. I remembered noticing that she’d done it near the end of her book when I was reading my review copy. When I got home, I pulled out GG’s book, and found the sentence I was looking for, at the very end of the acknowledgments at the back of the book. She thanks her husband, saying:
I could have written the book without him, but it wouldn’t have been as fun.
She didn’t write funner or funnest, but she definitely used fun as an adjective. The giveaway is the missing much. For me, it would have to be as much fun. The same goes for so fun and how fun.
Back to the podcast. GG speculated that the journey from noun to adjective began with the use of fun as an attributive noun. Attributive noun is a word I should have used when I talked about composite nominals two posts ago. It’s the grammatical term for a noun that modifies the head noun in a compound noun or composite nominal; for example, roof in roof damage. GG proposes that collocations such as fun fair or fun-fest, which are attested from the 1900s, were reanalyzed as Adjective+Noun instead of Noun+Noun combinations, and from there fun continued to gather more and more adjective-like properties, such as the ability to be modified by adverbs (very/how/so/as fun) and comparative and superlative forms in -er and -est.
That’s possible, but a more natural pathway in my opinion starts with fun used as a predicate nominative. A predicate nominative is a noun phrase that follows a linking verb, typically be or become. So in We are the champions, the NP the champions is a predicate nominative. However, adjectives can follow linking verbs, too. Adjectives in this position are known as predicate (or predicative) adjectives. In This iced tea is terrible, terrible is a predicate adjective. Now consider a sentence like That was fun! Is fun a predicate nominative, or a predicate adjective? If you don’t already know what kind of word it is, it could be interpreted either way. Furthermore, once a speaker files fun away as a predicate adjective, it is likely to be used as an attributive adjective as well. An attributive adjective is like an attributive noun, except that it’s an adjective. So in terrible iced tea, terrible is an attributive adjective. And from there, my story is the same as Grammar Girl’s: In addition to being used as a predicative or attributive adjective, fun started acquiring the other adjective properties mentioned above.
Why do I favor my history over Grammar Girl’s? I thought about a definite case of an attributive noun turning into an adjective: the adjective key, meaning “important”? The OED confirms that its earliest usage is as a noun; indeed, the adjective meaning doesn’t even seem to be in there yet. In a phrase like key concepts, we can conclude key began as an attributive noun, so that the phrase meant something like, “concepts that are so important that they are the (metaphorical) key to understanding other concepts”. From there, if all a speaker gets from the context is the “important” part, and misses the connection to the idea of key as a noun, then the path is clear to use it as a predicative adjective, as in These concepts are key, or to modify it with adverbs, as in a very key point or This is very key.
Now with fun fair, the meaning would be something like “a fair in which you can have fun”. The meaning there is so straightforward and nonmetaphorical that there is much less motivation for a reanalysis the way there is with key. It’s more like monster truck, whose meaning is so clearly related to the meaning of monster that (as far as I’ve been able to determine) monster hasn’t been reinterpreted as an adjective and used in phrases like *very monster or *That skyscraper is monster!.
I checked the American Dialect Society mailing list archives, and found that there was some discussion of funner and funnest in 2006. The attributive-noun-to-adjective theory was mentioned there, too, but Arnold Zwicky favored the predicate-nominative-to-adjective hypothesis I outlined above, but for a different reason. He wrote:
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). … 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.
He also pointed out:
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 … until the extremely visible comparative and superlative appeared (at least 25 years ago), and people started complaining, often and loudly.
Grammar Girl cites Garner’s Modern American English as saying that funner and funnest are more common among people born after 1970, but according to the respondents on the ADS list, there were adults using those forms by about that time. Jonathan Lighter wrote, “University freshmen began giving me themes featuring ‘funner’ and ‘funnest’ twenty-five to thirty years ago.” I searched for funner and funnest on Google Books, and didn’t find any attestations earlier than the 1970s — except one, from 1962, about the time when Jonathan Lighter’s college freshman would have been learning to speak. It was in a linguistics book called Logic and Language, by Bernard Felix Huppé and Jack Kaminskya, and it was in a section on child language acquisition, saying that children’s production of forms like goed and funnest are “not random creations”. In other words, the authors are taking it for granted that funnest is ungrammatical for their audience. Jonathan Lighter, following up on a lead from Jesse Sheidlower, also read an article by John Algeo in American Speech from that very same year, 1962, and found it “prescient” when it said:
The future development of adjectival fun needs watching. We can surely expect to find pure intensifiers used with it: a very fun party is only a matter of time. We may even anticipate being told that one car is funner than another, and that will be the funnest thing of all.
Now that I’ve talked about how, why, and when funner and funnest entered the language, I just have one more question: Why don’t I say how fun, so fun, as fun, funner, and funnest? It’s not like I maintain fun purely as a noun: I have no problem saying a fun game or It’s fun to watch movies. I think it just happened that I relied more on the forms I’d heard than on the rules I’d induced for forming comparative and superlative adjectives, and therefore said more fun instead of funner. If I ever wondered why I wasn’t hearing funner and funnest, I probably just wrote it off as one of those things. Just like there are defective verbs that are missing a past tense (must), fun was missing its -er and -est forms, and couldn’t be modified by an adverb. Now that I write it down, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense. So fun, how fun, very fun, funner, and funnest are much more sensible. But I still can’t bring myself to say them.