Thursday 10 December 2009

Fun, funner, funnest

A few days ago I noticed an ad for "the funnest iPod ever". Despite having gone through a phase of using “funner” and “funnest” when I was young and foolish, I still felt a little pedantic and prickly about Apple using its marketing might to popularise what some still view as a “ghastly”, “grating and horrifying” word. I wonder whether the use of the non-standard superlative was deliberate - possibly to make a banal slogan less banal and more fun - or whether it is entirely unselfconscious: a quotation from Steve Jobs, perhaps, or a reflection of the way people speak in techworld.

A more important question is why "fun" and "funner" should be considered wrong, while almost all other short adjectives ending in a consonant take -er and -est in the comparative and superlative (here is a link to a simple table showing the rules for comparatives and superlatives). WorldWideWords and Grammar Girl (in a response to Steve Jobs' use of the word at a press conference) explain that this is because "fun" was not, historically speaking, an adjective at all, but a noun.

It started being used as an attributive noun (a noun which modifies other nouns) in the nineteenth century, with phrases such as “fun-room”, “funfair” and “fun-fest” creeping into use. It is only recently that it has made the transition to being an adjective, and even now not all dictionaries accept it as one – my online OED only lists it as a noun and a verb (meaning to “make fun or sport”).

As a result, fun is still treated like a noun when forming comparatives and superlatives - so it is "more fun" and the "most fun", like "more sugar" or the "most sugar". Grammar Girl explains it thus:
“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”.
Incidentally, I have noticed that some non-native speakers of English use "funny" as an adjective meaning “fun”, which is entirely logical, in that it does derive from the noun “fun” (and has been around much longer than “fun” as an adjective). However, it always seems to have had the specific sense of “comical”.

On another slightly tangential note, I have noticed that another set of adjectives which don’t seem to follow the normal rules are adjectives of nationality. Words like “French”, “Dutch”, “Greek” and “Swiss” should in theory act like other one-syllable words ending in consonants, but I have never heard anyone use “Frencher” to mean “more French” (as in, “it’s more French to cook that way”, or “this bistro feels more French than the other one”). Does anyone know why this is?
No fun for pedants

1 comment:

  1. Well, for French at least, "Frencher" sounds like a French kisser.