Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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.

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22 Responses to “Fun with Funner and Funnest

  1. Jan Freeman said

    My Globe column on “funner” last spring just skimmed the surface, compared to your treatment and Arnold’s, but it would clarify one point: Steve Pinker is the likely source of the “people born after 1970” date for accepting adjectival “fun.” But it’s not a direct quote: In her 2000 book “Word Court,” Barbara Wallraff said, “Not that he’s made a scientific study of it, but psycholinguist Steven Pinker says he can tell whether people are under or over thirty years old by whether they’re willing to accept fun as a full-fledged adjective.” This may well be Garner’s source too (especially as Wallraff reviewed his ms.). But since its origin seems to have been a rough guess, we probably shouldn’t take it too seriously.

  2. Neal said

    Don’t know how I missed that column, but thanks for the lead and for the pointers to Steven Pinker and Barbara Wallraff. For the benefit of other readers, Jan’s column on fun can be found here.

    I’ve thought more about my usage of fun since posting, and it seems to be even more idiosyncratic than I thought. I’m pretty sure I can modify the adjective fun with an adverb after all, provided the adverb is really; for example, a really fun game. I can also say That was really fun!, but there it’s ambiguous whether the really is modifying fun or was.

  3. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    “Funner” and “funnest” have always felt wrong to me, even though I accept constructions like “just as fun” or “not very fun”. Your comparison with “key” (as it’s developing now) is awell-thought-out parallel: some people can accept “key” in sentences like “these concepts are key”, but they’d wince at hearing “*this concept is keyer” or “*the keyest concept in this chapter”.

  4. Neal said

    Your point about keyer and keyest occurred to me, too, sometime after I’d posted. Neither word appears in the Corpus of Contemporary American, nor does keyer get any relevant Google hits AFAICT, but check out this gem:

    finding it fully acceptable to sit on very small and very exclusive key OHV stakeholder funding and policy committees … that are under closure pressure from enviro lawsuits, by the eviros who sit on keyest of all the OHV stakeholder committees. link

  5. Glen said

    I specifically remember being corrected (probably by Mom or Dad) when I said “funner” or “funnest.” But no one ever corrected me when I used “fun” as an adjective, and it had never occurred to me that anyone would regard that as an error until I read this blog post.

    So I always classified “fun” with other adjectives, like “hilarious,” that form their comparatives and superlatives with “more” and “most.” I had no conscious rule for my classification of adjectives (I assumed it was arbitrary), until a recent Grammar Girl podcast (not the one that inspired this post) made me realize it had something to do with the number of syllables.

  6. Neal said

    Your analysis of more/most fun as just an analytical comparative/superlative form of an adjective, and not quantifier+noun is how others have taken it, too. In the same post to the ADS list quoted above, Arnold Zwicky brings up a recent grammar book that says some adjectives, even though they’re short, should not take an -er or -est suffix, but instead use the more and most phrasings. Zwicky points out that not only does this miss the more accurate explanation (that more/most fun is, or at least for most of its history was, quantifier+noun), but also offers no help for writers who want to know what other monosyllabic adjectives out there arbitrarily can’t take the –er/-est suffixes, since the only monosyllabic example they give is fun.

  7. StrPrpn said

    Funnily enough, I have no problem with fun as an adjective, though I do avoid ‘funner’ and ‘funnest’ in formal writing. And I did have an ivy league-educated professor in college who used the ‘funnily enough’ construction often in class, which I adored.

  8. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    Neal: “Wrong”, “real”, and “tired” (in fact, any adjective formed with an -ed suffix) are all one-syllable examples that would be compared with “more” and “most”:

    * “5 and 55 are both wrong answers to that problem, but 55 is more wrong [i.e., further from the correct one].”
    * “According to the Stanislavsky method of acting, using personal experience to evoke emotion makes a performance seem more real.”
    * “After a weekend of heavy chores, we were all tired out–but of everyone who’d been working, I was most tired.”

    So no, I don’t think that people who object to “fun/funnest” are trying to make a special exception; I may use “fun” as an adjective informally, but “funner” still sounds *wronger than “more fun”. 😉

  9. Neal said

    Good point, though Arnold’s point that the book’s advice is not very useful stands: why didn’t they give a rule, as you did, or an enumeration of short adjectives with analytic comparatives and superlatives for the ones that didn’t fall under a rule?

  10. Ellen K. said

    I think for me “fun” was like “beautiful”, “terrible” and such, an adjective that takes more and much rather than -er and -est. And since I never consciously thought about it, I didn’t think about that that’s unusual behavior for a short adjective.

  11. Ellen K. said

    P.S. I guess I should have read the comments before posting. 🙂

    So, are there any one sylable adjectives that don’t take -er/-est that aren’t either also nouns or verbs+ed besides “real”?

  12. The Ridger said

    @Ingeborg: “Tired” is not a one-syllable word for me. Also, it’s derived from a participle, which means (for me) it can’t be inflected with-er/-est.

  13. The Ridger said

    I found this Isaac Asimov quote:

    ..when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.

  14. Neal said

    Wronger reminded me of an LL post, which turned out not to be so relevant, but which led me to this very relevant one (when I searched LL Classic for “wronger”).

    Also, your comment about tired is interesting. In my post on r-colored vowels, I cited a study that concluded the sequence [ir] is not a diphthong (like [ar]), but an actual V+V sequence, much like rio or gooey. Therefore, I extended the conclusion, a word like beer, like rio and gooey should be perceived unequivocally as one syllable, unlike words with diphthongs like boy or Neal that people argue about. Tired contains [ir], but with the [i] as part of the already-diphthong [ai]. That, plus the fact that [ir] would be two syllables anyway, would indicate that tired definitely has two syllables, not one. And for you, it definitely does. For me, I kinda guess it does, but I’m not quite sure…

  15. redneck 17 said

    if its more fun and most fun, then why is fewer and fewest? they are both in the same form, c-v-c, but no one says more or less few or most or least few. if i said funner or funnest i would be castigated by grammar professors everywhere. which is correct?

  16. Neal said

    Redneck 17:
    First off, I’d say few is of form C-C-V phonetically–[fyu]–unless you actually put a [w] sound at the end. But that’s beside the point. You could just as easily have made the same point with big, bigger, biggest. The answer is that the original objection was NOT to making the comparative and superlative with -er, -est instead of with more, most. If you accept fun as an adjective, then insisting on more fun and most fun makes no sense whatsoever. The objection was to using fun as an adjective AT ALL, instead of preserving it as a noun. The forms funner and funnest are simply the most obvious giveaways that someone is using fun as an adjective. When someone just says, “This is fun!” you can’t really tell whether fun is an adjective or a noun.

    However, that’s only the historical basis for the rule against funner, funnest. These days, I’d say most people who heed this rule consciously think it’s just that fun is an adjective that, for no apparent reason, and unlike just about every other single-syllable adjective, doesn’t take the -er and -est suffixes. A rule like this is doomed to die. There are probably those who follow the rule for the reason that they prefer to use fun as a noun. For example, me — but see the concluding thoughts in the post for more on that.

  17. […] of style. I don’t agree with what she says all the time (see my review of her first book, and my post on funnest), but I like what she does for the most […]

  18. […] sometimes, when a noun modifier is reinterpreted as an adjective and treated accordingly (see fun and […]

  19. roofing contractor…

    […]Fun with Funner and Funnest « Literal-Minded[…]…

  20. Fun City | said

    […] move from noun to adjective is a complicated story. The best discussion I’ve seen is a 2008 blog post by Neal Whitman, who suggests that the word’s shiftiness stemmed […]

  21. […] move from noun to adjective is a complicated story. The best discussion I’ve seen is a 2008 blog post by Neal Whitman, who suggests that the word’s shiftiness stemmed […]

  22. SO MUCH FUN said

    When we say something is not as much fun, we use the word as a noun.

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