Episode 284: July 14, 2011
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Last week I was on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” and I thought the interview went well until the last thing out of my mouth: I said “Words are fun,” and then I cringed because that’s a controversial use of the word “fun.”
Some of you are probably saying “Darn right!” and the rest of you probably don’t see what’s wrong with it.
"Fun" as a Noun
Everyone agrees that “fun” can be a noun; it’s been used that way since the 1700s. For example, if you say “She sings for fun,” or “She sings for money,” “fun” and “money” are both nouns. When you say “We had fun,” it’s the grammatical equivalent of “We had pudding,” and again, “fun” and “pudding” are both nouns. “Money” and “pudding” may be more concrete than “fun”-- people at the same party may disagree about whether they had fun, whereas they would probably all agree that they had pudding and the singer made $50--but “fun,” “pudding, and ”money” are all nouns.
"Fun" as an Adjective
When you start using “fun” as an adjective, however, some people think the fun has stopped. Some dictionaries include “fun,” the adjective, and some don’t.
The younger you are the more likely you are to think there’s nothing wrong with a sentence that uses “fun” as an adjective such as the sentence “Squiggly brought fun games.” In that sentence “fun” is an adjective that modifies the noun “games.” You could say “Squiggly brought fun games,” “Squiggly brought boring games,” or “Squiggly brought yellow games.” “Fun,” “boring,” and “yellow” are all adjectives.
When I said “Words are fun,” it was the grammatical equivalent of saying “Words are boring” or “Words are yellow.”
Modern sources tend to grudgingly accept “fun” as an adjective. For example, Garner’s Modern American Usage says “fun” as an adjective has reached the stage where it “becomes commonplace even among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage.”
“Funnest” on the other hand, a word that would be the standard inflected form of the adjective “fun,” is less acceptable. I wrote about “funnest” back in 2008 when Steve Jobs called the new iPod the “funnest iPod ever.”
I still wish I hadn’t said, “Words are fun” at the end of my interview. Live radio isn’t exactly the place where careful usage shines because you need time to be careful, and I’m young enough that “fun” as an adjective doesn’t sound wrong to me, but I still know that it rubs some people the wrong way. It’s a low bar, but at least I didn’t say, “Talking about words is the funnest thing I did today.”
“Fun” as a Verb
Finally, you many not have ever used it this way, but “fun” is also a verb with a meaning similar to “joking” or “teasing” as in “You must be funning me, sir.” You won’t find it in many modern sources, but I did find it in the Terry Pratchett novel, Going Postal, which long-time listeners will know is one of my favorite books. Here’s the quotation:
Miss Maccalariat folded her arms, causing both Moist and Mr. Groat to shy backwards.
“I hope you’re not funning with me, Mr. Lipwig?” she demanded.
“What? Funning? I never fun!” Moist tried to pull himself together. Whatever happened next, he could not be made to stand in the corner. “I do not fun, Miss Maccalariat, and have no history of funning, and even if I was funning with you. What is the problem?”