We investigate the "fun" continuum and whether it's OK to use the words "funner" and "funnest."
Researching the word “funnest” and its close relation “funner” turned out to be a lot less fun than I had hoped — or at least more complicated.
First, the easy part. Everyone agrees that “fun” was originally just a noun. For example, you could say, “We had fun,” which is the grammatical equivalent of “We had cake.” Fun is more of a concept whereas cake is more of a thing, but they're both nouns. “Cake” may jump out at you more as one of those people-places-and-things concrete nouns we’ve talked about before, but “fun” is also a noun. It’s an abstract noun.
‘Fun,’ the Adjective
But now we head down the slippery slope of fun because many modern sources grudgingly (2) accept that “fun” can also be used as an adjective, as in “Squiggly throws a fun party.” (1, 3) In that sentence, “fun” is an adjective that modifies the noun “party.” It was a fun party.
How "fun" made its way from a noun to an adjective is a great illustration of how language can change over time. Nouns can be used to modify other nouns, and when they are they're called attributive nouns. In the phrase "sugar cookie," "sugar" is a noun, but it's being used in an attributive way to describe the cookie. Attributive nouns do the same thing as adjectives. You could say, "I ate a sugar cookie," or "I ate a yummy cookie." The sentences are constructed the same way, but "sugar" is an attributive noun and "yummy" is an adjective.
The Oxford English Dictionary notes a few uses of "fun" as an attributive noun such as "fun fair" and "fun-fest" in the early 1900s. It was probably from there that "fun" worked its way from noun to adjective. In English, nouns often end up becoming adjectives too. (1, 2)
A few sources note that using "fun" as an adjective is a generational thing. It's much more acceptable to children, (3) youngsters, (4) slackers, (5) and people who were born after 1970. (6) A Google Ngram search, which shows how often words are used in the books Google has scanned, shows that writers started using “fun” as an adjective more often around 1960, and using it that way has been steadily increasing ever since.
In fact, I suspect many of you listening probably use “fun” as an adjective without even thinking about it, and it doesn't sound strange to your ears, but remember, that wasn't always the case. It's a concession on the part of language traditionalists to not freak out when you say something such as "It was a fun party." They'd prefer you say something like “We had fun at the party.”
If you accept 'fun,' do you have to accept 'funner' and 'funnest'?
Here's where it gets really contentious. This is where I got stuck looking up reference after reference trying to find a convincing answer. If people accept that “fun” is an adjective, they should accept that “fun” can be inflected like other adjectives. If “wild” becomes “wilder” and “wildest,” and “silly” becomes “sillier” and “silliest,” why can't “fun” become “funner” and “funnest”?
In the episode on comparatives and superlatives, we told you that "one-syllable adjectives use the suffixes ‘-er’ or ‘-est’ on the end of the adjective. For example, ‘tall’ has one syllable, so, if you wanted to compare the height of your family members, you might say, ‘I am taller than my sister, but I’m not the tallest in the family.’” If you accept that "fun" is an adjective, the way to compare the funness of two or three things would be to use the words "funner" and "funnest."
Yet, even people who do 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 somewhat 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.
However, it’s probably a losing battle. Again a Google Ngram search shows a big and ongoing increase in the use of “funner” and “funnest” in books starting around 1980.
The Final Analysis
In the end, I've come to believe that there is a “fun” continuum. On one end you have "fun," the noun, and everyone is happy to cluster around and be associated with it. That's the standard usage.
Then, if you move on to "fun," the adjective, you've got a smaller but still very significant group of people who will give their approval.
And then as you move on down the continuum, you've got a much smaller group of people who are willing to grab "funner" and "funnest" by the shoulders and give them a big welcoming hug. That would be an example of language in flux. (For more examples, see my TedX talk about language change). If you remember an Apple marketing campaign from way back in 2008, you’ll remember that Steve Jobs was part of this group. He thrust "funnest" into the spotlight when he predicted Apple’s new iPod would be the "funnest iPod ever.” And maybe it was, but technology is fickle and language change is constant. iPods aren’t very common anymore, but the popularity of “funnest” keeps growing.
1. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 1994, pp. 469-70.
2. Garner, B. Garner's Modern American Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 416.
3. The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 197.
4. The Grammar Logs. #596, March 24, 2004, https://web.archive.org/web/20190427082852/http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/GRAMMAR/grammarlogs4/grammarlogs596.htm (accessed April 21, 2022).
5. Wallraff, B. Word Court. 87 (2000).
Online comments that include objections to "fun" as an adjective:
Other Interesting Links:
- World Wide Words article about "fun" (Perhaps the best article online about the word "fun.” The author doesn't take a strong stand on "fun" as an adjective but is opposed to "funner" and "funnest.")