The day after my first post on the pronunciation of mischievous, I received a detailed email message from a recently retired English professor with the playful subject line “A Mischievous Response.” Richard (as I will call him, because that is his name — and he gave me permission to quote from his email) had concerns about my use of the phrase “fun, mischievous connotations,” and the concerns had nothing to do with the extra syllable I put in: “mischievious.” In fact, he noted, there are few pronunciations deviating from what might be called standard that he would consider “wrong.”
Richard had, instead, zeroed in on how I was using the word fun. He wrote: “Are you really more comfortable using ‘fun’ as an adjective than you are using a deviant pronunciation of ‘mischievous’? I see that my favored dictionary [the 1973 edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language] does not acknowledge the possibility of ‘fun’ as an adjective.”
The answer is, well, yes: I am completely comfortable using fun as an adjective. But my answer is less interesting to me than the question. This concern about using fun as an adjective strikes me as an endangered species in the world of language peeves. I was tickled to see it pop up unsolicited in my inbox.
When I give public talks about language peeves, I often include the question about adjectival fun from the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage survey, which asks members of the usage panel to evaluate the acceptability of the following five sentences:
- That party was really fun.
- That party was so fun.
- We went to a fun party.
- That party was funner than I expected.
- That was the funnest party I’ve been to this year.
Most audience members at my talks are mystified by the inclusion of the first three sentences at all. Sure, they might be informal, but unacceptable? Funner and funnest: Those are different, but what’s wrong with fun?
I explain the history of fun as a noun, which shifted during the 20th century to an adjective, although its comparative and superlative forms haven’t yet caught up. That is, many of us hold on to the forms more fun and most fun because to compare amounts of the noun fun, we need more and most. Kids, when they learn the language, have the impulse to make fun work like other one-syllable adjectives (e.g., tall/taller/tallest) and readily create funner and funnest until corrected.
My informal polling suggests that funner is “cringier” than funnest. In the long run, I suspect, funnest will become standard first and bring funner into more and more standard usage on its coattails. But adjectival fun needs no coattails.
Richard turned to his 1973 edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, but, as I pointed out to him, if he looked in the online version, he would see that in 2015, 84 percent of the usage panel accepted the sentence We went to a fun party. Of course, this means that 16 percent of the panel did not accept fun as an adjective. The peeve may qualify as endangered, but it is not extinct.
Strikingly, as late as 1999, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage proscribes adjectival fun. The entry states: “fun. Though the commercials may someday win respectability for fun as an adjective (a fun vacation), the gushing sound argues for keeping the word a noun.” I have yet to figure out how fun is gushier as an adjective than it is as a noun, and I am struck by the effort to restrict fun well after that horse had left the noun barn. By the 2015 edition, the Times’s manual labels adjectival fun as simply “colloquial.”
As a historian of the English language, I am interested not only in the process of functional shift that allowed fun to become an adjective, but also in the process of attitudinal shift that, in the case of fun, is erasing a peeve within one person’s lifetime.