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Language evolution not always fun

October, 2009

Reader Wendy McDonald asked, “Can you tell me when ‘fun’ became an adjective rather than a noun? I suppose this is a case of the language evolving, but I must say I’m glad I’m not an English teacher these days. Where does one draw the line?”

Like Ms. McDonald, whom I presume to be over 40, I tend to cringe when I hear the word “fun” used in an adjectival sense, particularly when it is expressed in the comparative (“funner”) and superlative senses (“funnest”). The construction “so fun” also leaves me with a queasy feeling. I should perhaps explain that “fun” should not be confused with “funny” which means “amusing”; the adjectival meaning is more akin to “enjoyable.”

Having admitted that adjectivally, at least, I’m not a “fun” guy, I have to concede that there is nothing inherently ungrammatical in the use of “fun” as an adjective. One of the hallmarks, and I would argue, one of the strengths of English is its flexibility. Nouns can be “verbed,” verbs and adjectives can be “nouned,” and as is the case of the word “fun,” nouns can be turned into adjectives.

It’s often difficult to state categorically what function a word is fulfilling in an English sentence. Take the word “steel.” If I say “Steel is a metal,” it is obvious that “steel” is being used as a noun. If, however, I declare “The steel bridge rusted,” “steel” is modifying the noun “bridge” and acts like an adjective. We happen to know that in the latter sense “steel” is a noun because of its use in other contexts. If we were not aware of these other contexts we might conclude that it was an adjective.

This is how the word “fun” is used in many situations. People refer to a “a fun time” or “a fun activity.” Many of us say things such as “This game is fun” or “It’s really fun” or “This party is more fun than the last one” where the distinction between adjective and noun is rather hazy.

It is likely that this use of “fun” began playfully in expressions such as “It’s fun to travel” where “fun” was behaving syntactically like an adjective. This usage became popular in American English by the 1960s, but there is some evidence to suggest that it had 19th century antecedents. In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written in 1876, Huck tells Tom Sawyer, “Tom-honest injun, now – is it fun or earnest?” Here “fun” is more adjectival than noun-like because of its pairing with “earnest.”

In any case, while the original intent of the adjectival sense of “fun” may have been jocular, it is usually used in earnest nowadays. Typical of this tendency is the blurb I read recently on a book entitled Cell Wars: “This book describes in a fun manner the way the body fights off bacteria and viruses.”

Under the heading “fun” the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists situations where the word appears in combination forms such as “fun-filled” or “fun-loving.” Increasingly, these combined forms are being supplanted and replaced merely with the word “fun.” This follows a pattern prevalent particularly in American English where words are shortened. I noticed, for example, that the term “winningest” is accepted by Encarta World English Dictionary, published in the USA, whereas the word is not listed in the OED, published in the UK.

Although the OED, unlike some dictionaries, still does not give its blessing to the adjectival use of “fun,” I was surprised to discover that the word is cited as a verb going back to 1685: “She had fun’d him of his Coin.” Here the verb “to fun”’ means “to cheat.” I suspect the day will come when we find that this usage does not raise any elderly eyebrows, probably when today’s 30-year-olds will be using “funner” and “funnest” as octogenerians. Entering “funner” and “funnest” into Google yielded thousands of hits, and not all of them to youth-oriented sites. One online travel magazine headline announced “Cruises: Bigger, Fancier, Funner Than Ever” and advertises “the funnest movies to watch.”

So should “fun” be used as an adjective? My advice is that it is fine to use in informal contexts such as conversation, letters, or e-mail, but for the time being, because there are so many people “funning fun,” it is best to avoid in formal writing.

Howard Richler’s latest book is Can I Have a Word With You?



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