I’m going to have a little fun with today’s column. Whether this will be the most fun post you’ll ever read or the funnest post you’ll ever read … well, neither will likely be the case. But that sentence illustrates the dilemma I’ll be having fun with today.
The word fun has had a long life as a noun, and people have had no problem with it being a noun. Take this example sentence: “Birthday parties are a time for fun.” In that sentence, the noun fun is the object of the preposition for. But fun has a couple characteristics that, together, set it apart from the vast majority of other nouns and lead to a conundrum.
First, fun is always a mass noun — like sadness, ingenuity, and mucus — so it doesn’t take an indefinite article. A woman doesn’t have *a fun just as she doesn’t have *an ingenuity.
Second, while the other examples words can be paired with sad, ingenious, and both mucous and mucosal, fun doesn’t have its own adjective form. Funny long ago took on a different meaning, and we just don’t have words like *funnal, *funty, or *funnious to fall back on.
So, over time, fun got drafted as its own adjective form. This is neither new nor exceptional. When we use a noun as if it were an adjective, to modify another noun — as in birthday party, cigar smoke, and example sentences — we call it an attributive noun. Though the words birthday, cigar, and example act like adjectives when they’re used this way, they are still nouns.
Thus, a fun party can be seen as grammatically equal to a birthday party, and the same applies to fun smoke and fun sentences. But as you can see, the line between noun and adjective blurs here.
The existence of a line at all comes into question when we start to look at comparatives and superlatives. Most nouns used attributively don’t directly get the comparative and superlative treatment, at least not without further (and sometimes questionable) alteration. One might note that pipe smoke smells more like a cigar, or more cigar-like, than a burning Ford Pinto does. But one isn’t likely to say that pipe smoke is *more cigar or *cigarer than engine smoke. The cigar’s status as a noun is strictly maintained.
Traditionalists do the same with fun, or try to. If a strict grammarian had more fun at his divorce party than at any previous party in his life, he would definitely not say that it was the funnest party ever; he would even avoid saying it was the most fun party ever. Both funnest and most fun mark the root fun as an adjective, which, according to the traditionalist, it isn’t.
No, he would likely recast the sentence to maintain fun’s noun-ness, either as “That was the most fun I’ve ever had at a party” or, getting rid of fun altogether, “That was the most pleasurable party of my life.”
But that’s not how we use the language organically. Yes, maintaining fun’s noun-ness is still the norm in formal, edited prose, but in spoken language, we have all already given fun full adjective privileges. A phrase like “That was so fun!” comes naturally to most of us, even though grammatical tradition says it ought to be “That was so much fun!” We talk about fun vacations and fun conversations and fun games. And if one game offered you more fun than another, which one would you want to play?
It hasn’t achieved complete acceptance, of course. Fun as an adjective — and especially any comparative or superlative forms — is still viewed as an error in formal written work. But the internet has given a public writing outlet to practically anyone who wants one; most of that writing takes a conversational tone, and commercial publications have drifted toward that same tone. That drift from conversation to conversational writing has led to the undeniable growth of adjectival fun over the last twenty years. Though we are not there yet, I believe fun will eventually find a new, permanent, and acceptable home as an adjective, even in formal works. It’s as inevitable as singular they, media, and data.
So the question then will be whether the comparative and superlative forms will be funner/funnest or more fun/most fun. That ought to be simple. The general rule is that one-syllable words get the -er/-est treatment, words of three or more syllables get more and most, and two-syllable words get a whole mess of other rules that require experience, judgment, and taste to tease out. So: funner and funnest.
Then again, few (if any) so-called rules of English exist without exception. Common usage by common folk will ultimately dictate which becomes the “correct” form. In the end, it may simply come down to which is more fun to say — and that’s what makes English the funnest toy of all.
Before you start writing an angry letter, please know that my editorial views do not necessarily represent those of Copyediting.com or Pilcrow Group, Inc. Even if you disagree with me, this usage is certainly something to think about and to start noticing in the world around you.