Episode 134: September 12, 2008
Grammar Girl here.
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. It may just be my skewed perspective, but it seems to me that more people were talking about whether “funnest” is a real word than were talking about iPods. I felt it was my duty to respond.
Researching the word “funnest” and its close relation “funner” turned out to be a lot less fun than I had hoped. The opinions are so varied that I became completely engrossed and frustrated and forgot to call my mother on her birthday. Sorry, Mom.
"Fun," the Noun
First, the easy part. Everyone agrees that “fun” was originally just a noun. For example, you could say, “We had fun,” which is the grammatical equivalent of “We had cake.” Fun is more of an abstract thing than cake, but they're both nouns. People at the same party may disagree about whether they had fun, whereas they would probably all agree that they had cake, but “fun” and “cake” are both nouns.
"Fun," the Adjective
But now we head down the slippery slope of fun because many modern sources grudgingly accept that “fun” can also be used as an adjective, as in “Squiggly throws a fun party” (1, 3). In that sentence “fun” is an adjective that modifies the noun “party.” It was a fun party.
How "fun" made its way from a noun to an adjective is a great illustration of how language can change over time. Nouns can be used to modify other nouns, and when they are they're called attributive nouns. In the phrase "sugar cookie," "sugar" is a noun, but it's being used in an attributive way to describe the cookie. Attributive nouns do exactly the same thing as adjectives. You could say, "I ate a sugar cookie" or "I ate a yummy cookie." The sentences are constructed the same way, but "sugar" is an attributive noun and "yummy" is an adjective.
The Oxford English Dictionary notes a few uses of "fun" as an attributive noun such as "fun fair" and "fun-fest" in the early 1900s. It was probably from there that "fun" worked its way from noun to adjective. In English, nouns often end up becoming adjectives too (1, 2).
A few sources note that using "fun" as an adjective is a generational thing. It's much more acceptable to children (3), youngsters (4), slackers (5), and people who were born after 1970 (6). I suspect that many of you listening probably use “fun” as an adjective without even thinking about it, and it doesn't sound strange to your ears, but remember, that wasn't always the case. It's a concession on the part of language traditionalists to let you live after you say something such as "It was a fun party." They'd prefer you say something like “We had fun at the party.”
"Fun," the Inflected Adjective
And here's where it gets really contentious. This is where I got stuck looking up reference after reference trying to find a convincing answer. If people accept that “fun” is an adjective, they should accept that “fun” can be inflected like other adjectives. If “crazy” becomes “crazier” and “craziest,” and “silly” becomes “sillier” and “silliest,” why can't “fun” become “funner” and “funnest”?
We told you in Episode 124 that "One-syllable adjectives use the suffixes ‘-er’ or ‘-est’ on the end of the adjective. For example, ‘tall’ has one syllable, so, if you wanted to compare the height of your family members, you might say, ‘I am taller than my sister, but I’m not the tallest in the family.’” If you accept that "fun" is an adjective, the way to make the comparative and superlative forms would be "funner" and "funnest."
Yet, even people who accept that "fun" is an adjective are unlikely to embrace "funner" and "funnest." It seems as if language mavens haven't truly gotten over their irritation that “fun” has become an adjective, and they've decided to dig in their heels against “funner” and “funnest.” In their minds, if “fun” as an adjective is still informal, then the inflected forms are still “nonstandard,” or to use less fussy words—“funnest” is grating and horrifying. And the language mavens still have enough influence to hold the line for now.
The Final Analysis
In the end, I've come to believe that there is a “fun” continuum. On one end you've got "fun," the noun, and everyone is happy to cluster around and be associated with it. That's the standard usage. Then, if you move on to "fun," the adjective, you've got a smaller but still significant group of people who will give their approval. That makes "fun" as an adjective informal usage. And then as you move on down the continuum you've got a much smaller group of people who are willing to grab "funner" and "funnest" by the shoulders and give them a big welcoming hug. That would be an example of language in flux. This small group clearly includes Steve Jobs, who has just thrust "funnest" into the spotlight. I predict the "funnest iPod ever" campaign will increase the general use of "funnest" and could even push it into the informal usage category. Now that's power.