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Fun City

Today, the Beach Boys would sing, "We'll have fun, funner, funnest till her daddy takes the T-bird away."

Today, the Beach Boys would sing, “We’ll have fun, funner, funnest till her daddy takes the T-bird away.”

When a friend in his thirties came up to me at a party the other day and said, “I have a question about fun,” I knew he wasn’t going to ask about whether the word could be used as an adjective. That would be like asking if iced tea could be used as a beverage. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly in 1997, Barbara Wallraff described Steven Pinker as remarking that “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.” Today that translates to over or under 47, which seems about right.

Indeed, my friend’s question concerned a nuance: he had read a post on the Grammarist blog about the merits of the comparative forms funner and more fun, and wanted to know my thoughts. Before I tell you my answer, a little background.

Fun‘s 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 in part from its originally being used as both an attributive noun (like baseball in “baseball game”) and a predicate nominative (like Penn State in “We are Penn State“). For several decades in the mid-20th century, the word occupied a sort of no man’s land between noun and adjective, as in a 1946 quote from Time cited by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “This language problem has its fun side, too.” The Boston Globe columnist Jan Freeman discovered that Rose Franken, a popular novelist and playwright in the ’40s and ’50s, was peculiarly fond of this use of the word, referring to “fun ideas,” “fun evenings,” and “fun times.”

But it seems that the indisputably adjectival use picked up steam in the years before and after 1960 (that is, about seven years before the birth of Steven Pinker’s oldest fun-accepter). Whitman cites a 1962 John Algeo article from American Speech saying that the progress of the adjective form “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.” Algeo appears to be trying hard to keep a straight face, but in fact, the time of very fun had already come. A 1957 edition of Road and Track contains the line “I got a laugh from a very fun gag item.”

1n 1963, Dwight Bolinger wrote a note for American Speech beginning, “A teen-age member of my family has just perpetrated the construction which constitutes the title of this note ["It's So Fun"], thus fulfilling John Algeo’s prophecy.” In his 1972 book Degree Words, Bolinger returned to the topic, noting that fun “has received attention because the younger set accepts it almost [emphasis added] fully as an adjective, e.g. in the constructions It’s so fun!, We had a fun time, even It’s very fun.” He appends an ethnographic footnote: “The last was heard from a Radcliffe student, 25 May 1964.” Two years after that, in the middle of a New York City transit strike, Mayor John Lindsay said, “I still think it’s a fun city.” Lindsay may have been sincere, but for at least two decades after that, the sobriquet was exclusively used ironically.

The Ngram Viewer graph below shows the ascent in published work of the expressions named by Algeo and Bolinger:

Screen Shot 2014-05-19 at 9.35.43 PM

I have no  doubt as to why fun has caught on as an adjective with “the younger set.” It is useful. What are the alternatives to saying that an experience was “very fun”? Very entertaining. Highly enjoyable. Most amusing. See what I mean? You sound as though you’re in a drawing room with Noel Coward and Gertie Lawrence.

Getting back to my friend’s question, funner is no different in grammatical logic from so fun or very fun; the alternative, more fun, is seriously wanting as an adjectival phrase. We expect one-syllable adjectives, like dry, sad, dark, and bright, to have an -er  comparative form. “Six Flags is a more fun amusement park than Disneyland” sounds stilted and odd. Funner has been held back, I believe, by one thing: It sounds like something a 6-year-old would say. In fact, it is something a 6-year-old would say, and did. His name is James, and a 1969 article about aggression in The Psychoanalytic Journal quoted him: “I like to sleep in the dark because it is funner (sic). I pretend I am scared to fool my brother. I tell him a monster is in the room, and he runs to Mama and says a monster is in the room, but then she turns on the light, and she is surprised, and he is surprised, and I fooled them.”

Today, of course, funner requires no “(sic).” And people older than 47 have started to accept adjectival fun. It makes so much sense that Changing Usage Impulse makes us want to say it, and more and more of us do. Neal Whitman’s 2008 post was occasioned by a statement by Steve Jobs (born in 1955) that he was introducing “the funnest iPod ever.” In January, The New York Times had this in an article about Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu (also born in 1955): “A campaign tracker from the conservative group America Rising PAC filmed her conversations. ‘Very fun,’ she deadpanned.”

But there are and will always be holdouts. Whitman closed by noting, “So fun, how fun, very fun, funner, and funnest are much more sensible [than traditional forms]. But I still can’t bring myself to say them.” Since more than five years have passed since he wrote that, I sent him a message asking if he had come round to using those constructions. His reply:

“Nope!”

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