Arrant Pedantry

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Funner Grammar

As I said in the addendum to my last post, maybe I’m not so ready to abandon the technical definition of grammar. In a recent post on Copyediting, Andrea Altenburg criticized the word funner in an ad for Chuck E. Cheese as “improper grammar”, and my first reaction was “That’s not grammar!”

That’s not entirely accurate, of course, as Matt Gordon pointed out to me on Twitter. The objection to funner was originally grammatical, and the Copyediting post does make an appeal to grammar. The argument goes like this: fun is properly a noun, not an adjective, and as a noun, it can’t take comparative or superlative degrees—no funner or funnest.

This seems like a fairly reasonable argument—if a word isn’t an adjective, it can’t inflect like one—but it isn’t the real argument. First of all, it’s not really true that fun was originally a noun. As Ben Zimmer explains in “Dear Apple: Stop the Funnification”, the noun fun arose in the late seventeenth century and was labeled by Samuel Johnson in the mid-1800s “as ‘a low cant word’ of the criminal underworld.” But the earliest citation for fun is as a verb, fourteen years earlier.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage
notes, “A couple [of usage commentators] who dislike it themselves still note how nouns have a way of turning into adjectives in English.” Indeed, this sort of functional shift—also called zero derivation or conversion by linguists because they change the part of speech without the means of prefixation or suffixation—is quite common in English. English lacks case endings and has little in the way of verbal endings, so it’s quite easy to change a word from one part of speech to another. The transformation of fun from a verb to a noun to an inflected adjective came slowly but surely.

As this great article explains, shifts in function or meaning usually happen in small steps. Once fun was established as a noun, you could say things like We had fun. This is unambiguously a noun—fun is the object of the verb have. But then you get constructions like The party was fun. This is structurally ambiguous—both nouns and adjectives can go in the slot after was.

This paves the way to analyze fun as an adjective. It then moved into attributive use, directly modifying a following noun, as in fun fair. Nouns can do this too, so once again the structure was ambiguous, but it was evidence that fun was moving further in the direction of becoming an adjective. In the twentieth century it started to be used in more unambiguously adjectival roles. MWDEU says that this accelerated after World War II, and Mark Davies COHA shows that it especially picked up in the last twenty years.

Once fun was firmly established as an adjective, the inflected forms funner and funnest followed naturally. There are only a handful of hits for either in COCA, which attests to the fact that they’re still fairly new and relatively colloquial. But let’s get back to Altenburg’s post.

She says that fun is defined as a noun and thus can’t be inflected for comparative or superlative forms, but then she admits that dictionaries also define fun as an adjective with the forms funner and funnest. But she waves away these definitions by saying, “However, dictionaries are starting to include more definitions for slang that are still not words to the true copyeditor.”

What this means is that she really isn’t objecting to funner on grammatical grounds (at least not in the technical sense); her argument simply reduces to an assertion that funner isn’t a word. But as Stan Carey so excellently argued, “‘Not a word’ is not an argument”. And even the grammatical objections are eroding; many people now simply assert that funner is wrong, even if they accept fun as an adjective, as Grammar Girl says here:

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.”

It brings to mind the objection against sentential hopefully. Even though there’s nothing wrong with sentence adverbs or with hopefully per se, it was a new usage that drew the ire of the mavens. The grammatical argument against it was essentially a post hoc justification for a ban on a word they didn’t like.

The same thing has happened with funner. It’s perfectly grammatical in the sense that it’s a well-formed, meaningful word, but it’s fairly new and still highly informal and colloquial. (For the record, it’s not slang, either, but that’s a post for another day.) If you don’t want to use it, that’s your right, but stop saying that it’s not a word.

17 Responses to Funner Grammar

  1. Stan says:

    Objections of the “X is not a word” variety rarely take history into account. People are often amazed at how long irregardless has been around, for example, and they’re likely to be surprised that fun was probably a verb first. But then any facts or factors that weigh against the original bias will be dismissed as irrelevant.

    There’s a certain light-hearted subversion in consciously using non-standard forms in the knowledge that they’ll irritate fussier readers. I wonder if the semantics play a minor supporting role here: people who relish the fun of language in its endless flexibility may be more likely to accept and use the fun (though currently non-standard) derivations funner and funnest.

    I wonder what she means by “true copyeditor”.

  2. So, even as a dyed-in-the-wool descriptivist and COCA user, it seems to me that what’s happening here is, you’re the Expert, and you’re misinterpreting Erroneous sentences that are perfectly intelligible to everyone else. You’ve become the exact thing you’re railing against.

    Ms. Altenburg: “‘Funner’ still isn’t a word to the true copyeditor.”

    Jonathan: “You can’t use the word ‘word’ that way. That’s not what it means.”

    Stan: “I wonder what she means by ‘true copyeditor’.”

    *facepalm*

    Experts in every field peeve about the uninitiated using their technical terms in informal senses, but you of all people should know better.

  3. What I mean is that when an editor says “‘funner’ is not a word”, we all know exactly what that means:

    1. ‘Funner’ is a word.

    2. ‘Funner’ is stigmatized in formal contexts.

    3. I consider ‘funner’ bad and wrong and I am dead set agin’ it.

    This is perfectly clear to me. It appears in COCA, where ‘civilest’, ‘nother’, ‘bigness’, ‘proactive’, and ‘decompensate’ apparently are not words.

    Of course the sentiment is inherently a moral judgment on a linguistic matter, which seems automatically wrong. It suggests that either the editor has internalized that stigma more than could possibly be rationally defended, or else harbors some eye-popping delusions about how linguistic changes affect culture. And to be fair, Jonathon doesn’t go that far.

    But the line “stop saying that it’s not a word” still reads to me like “you can’t use words in established senses that I disagree with”.

  4. AnWulf says:

    Nothing wrong with fun as an adjectiv … I’v been noting it that way all my life and I ain’t a spring chicken! lol

    BTW, funness has been about for a long time as well. This is from an article in 1960 talking about the ice cream industry:

    Too often, the industry has been on the defensive and has not aggressively promoted the value, nutrition and “fun-ness” of its products.

  5. boris says:

    I have no problem with fun being an adjective. It just doesn’t seem to take -er and -est suffixes. Aren’t there other adjectives that only take “more X” and “most X”?

  6. Tricia says:

    Fun was a verb? What did it mean? Aren’t there other adjectives that don’t take inflections of degree? Like excellent?

  7. The Ridger says:

    The basic rule is that monosyllables, bisyllables ending in -y (pretty, happy), -le (nobler, abler), or -er (clever, somber) take -er and -est, but all others take more and most. Thus, “fun” should be “funner”.

    My guess is that (as with most new nouns and verbs being regular) for many people “fun” seems new and thus should take the simplest, non-flected route. For others, “fun” may not really be an adjective at all. If I were to be asked “Is that a book or a magazine?” I might answer “It’s more book” but not “It’s booker.” (Possibly “bookier”, though.) That said, I say “it’s more fun than” not “funner than”, but I don’t worry about those who do say “funner”.

  8. Jason: The problem I have is not that she made a moral judgment on a linguistic matter. The problems I have are that the moral judgment is based on poor linguistic analysis and that the judgment takes the form of a linguistic one, not a moral one, allowing the judge to sublimate opinions on a word’s acceptability into statements about the language.

    I knew exactly what Ms. Altenburg meant, but in my experience, most people are pretty bad at separating their opinions about language from facts about language. I think that’s a problem if you want to discuss usage intelligently.

    Perhaps my “stop saying that it’s not a word” line was a bit too authoritarian for your tastes, but here’s why I think it’s different from saying “funner is not a word, so you shouldn’t use it”. “X is not a word” obscures linguistic facts, substitutes opinions for facts, and makes it difficult to talk about the difference between supposed nonwords, like funner, and actual nonwords, like flargle, or ungrammatical forms, like computerer and computerest.

    Saying “stop saying that it’s not a word” is an attempt to remove that obscurity, separate facts from opinions, and give us a way to talk about different kinds of linguistic phenomena. You can say “You’ve become the exact thing you’re railing against” if you want, but I think it’s a false equivalency.

  9. AnWulf: It’s interesting that funness goes so far back. It still sounds strange to me, but as Christopher Johnson noted in Ben Zimmer’s article, it goes to show how thoroughly fun has turned into an adjective.

    boris: There certainly are other adjectives that don’t take -er and -est, but not any monosyllabic ones, as The Ridger already noted.

    Tricia: Fun still is a verb, and it originally meant to cheat or trick someone, though now it also means to tease or joke. The OED says that the noun probably came from the verb, but it’s not clear. The difference in sense between the two makes me wonder if they both had their origins in a different word.

    The Ridger: I think I say “more fun” too, not “funner”, but I wonder if that’s because I grew up hearing “Funner isn’t a word!” I think a lot of people have internalized the stricture so thoroughly that they now default to the periphrastic rather than inflected forms.

  10. marc leavitt says:

    Jonathon:
    One of the problems here is that we already have “fun, funnier and funniest.” This is a relatively new and parallel choice.I find it rather jarring, but then, I’m not used to it; it might be “funner” after a period of time.

    One more point: What if we extend the usage to adverbs? Funnily, I think that might happen…or, did I mean to write “funly?”

  11. Marc: I’m not sure why that’s a problem, because we actually have funny, funnier, and funniest. It’s not actually parallel.

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  14. Eugene says:

    I’m guessing that “more fun” and “most fun” began as quantifier + noun collocations that were so frequent and familiar that the combination stuck when fun became an adjective. The established collocations blocked the expected regular formations – funner and funnest.
    Nobody would object to the expression, “a fun party,” I suppose. So fun looks like an adjective by the syntactic test, right? But fun doesn’t quite pass the comparative/superlative test for adjective status. I think many speakers would be uneasy with “a more fun party,” but most would be OK with “the most fun party.” So fun is a marginal (pretty good) adjective.

  15. You’re probably right about the quantifier + noun constructions, but I’m not convinced that this blocked the formation of inflected adjectival forms. I think it’s just that fun hasn’t successfully transitioned to an adjective for some people, and for some others, teachers and parents have drilled “funner isn’t a word” into their heads hard enough to effectively block the inflected forms. But I think that’s attributable to social stigma more than anything else. Some people don’t accept hopefully as a sentential adverb either, but I think the only thing blocking it is the stigma against it.

  16. The Ridger says:

    @marc leavitt: I don’t believe that “fun” and “funny” mean the same thing many people. So I don’t think “funnier” interferes with “funner” at all.

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