Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Mailbag Friday: "Funner" and "Funnest"

Jennifer A. of Concord, CA writes:

Recently, Apple launched some new products, including the new iPod Touch. According to the slide shown at the keynote presentation, this is the "funnest iPod ever." Ugh. I grew up with my parents correcting the use of funnest and funner so this is like fingernails on a chalkboard for me. Not only was the word used in the presentation, but it's right there on the Apple.com homepage too.

When Apple head honcho Steve Jobs unveiled "the funnest iPod ever" at a September event, "people all over the Internet freaked out," in the words of Grammar Girl, who devoted a podcast to the funnest fuss. To add insult to injury, a few weeks later when T-Mobile announced a new smartphone using Google's Android software, they introduced it with an ad that used the word funnerer (along with smarterer and other silly comparative adjectives). Since the Google phone directly competes with Apple's iPhone, some saw this as a not-too-subtle jab at Jobs. But that didn't stop one techie blog from saying the ad "shows blatant hostility towards the English language."

We can safely put aside funnerer and its ilk, since these forms tend to appear in strictly facetious contexts — such as the movie title Dumb and Dumberer (which out-dumbed its predecessor, Dumb and Dumber), or the tennis fan's slogan "Federer is Betterer." They're absurd versions of the "double comparative," which usually refers to combining more with -er, like more easier — common among children learning the language, but an obvious no-no for adult speakers of standard English. (Well, at least since Shakespeare's time, since the Bard was known to write things like "More fairer than fair.")

So what about funner and funnest? Jennifer's not alone in her "fingernails on a chalkboard" reaction. When Erin McKean wrote recently in the Boston Globe about words that people say are "not really words," funner was at the very top of her list of examples. But she goes on to observe:

Funner in the sentence "I don't know a better person or a funner person to be around — I love you, Mom," hinders the understanding of the reader not a jot. We all get that the writer really, really loves her mom, and changing funner to "more fun" wouldn't improve their relationship — or that heartfelt tribute — one bit.

So even if funner and funnest make your skin crawl, let's try to accept them as "real words." You can call them nonstandard, colloquial, informal, casual, slangy, or even signs of the apocalypse, but there's no reason to deny them wordhood.

Why are reactions so strong against funner and funnest? Plain old fun has always gotten something of a bad rap: back in 1755, Samuel Johnson called it "a low cant word," meaning that it was jargon from the underworld. Over the centuries, the reputation of fun has been rehabilitated, but only as a noun. Many usage guides still state bluntly that fun is a noun and not an adjective. But it's a plain fact that fun has increasingly been treated as an adjective by modern English speakers, even among those who object to adding the comparative and superlative suffixes.

Fun crept into adjectival usage in large part because of its ambiguous use as a predicate, as in "That party was fun," where it can be read as either a noun or an adjective. When fun is a predicate, you can only tell which part of speech it is when it gets modified: "That was great fun" or "That was lots of fun" reveals it as a noun, while "That was so fun" or "That was very fun" reveals it as an adjective. ("That was really fun" is a tricky ambiguity, since really could be working as a "sentence adverb," modifying the whole sentence rather than just fun.) Similarly, fun is a noun in "Dad is not as much fun as Mom," but it's an adjective in "Dad is not as fun as Mom."

Even when fun is used to modify a noun, there still can be ambiguity. A "fun house" could be understood as "a house where fun happens" — in other words, it could be an attributive noun rather than adjective. On the other hand, if you can add an adverb before it, as in "They have an extremely fun house," then you've clearly moved into adjectival terrain.

But creeping "adjectivization" can sometimes only go so far. Adding -er or -est is the most in-your-face way to flag a word as an adjective, since there's no possible way of connecting it back to the original noun sense. That's a bridge too far for many English speakers. But for a lot of people born in the last thirty or forty years, especially in the United States, there's nothing objectionable about funner or funnest, at least in informal usage. In another thirty or forty years, these words might even be considered acceptable in standard written English. We're not there yet, so for now it can be quite eye-catching or even disconcerting to see it in places where we expect standard language to appear. And in that regard, Apple's announcement of "the funnest iPod ever" is a clever marketing move, as it's certainly generated an enormous amount of discussion.

Of course, Apple also gave us the catchphrase "Think different," but that's a grammatical puzzler for another day.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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