why ‘funner’ should be an accepted word

For most people, the litmus test for whether a word is a “real word” or not is its inclusion in or exclusion from a dictionary, and especially a big, fat, haughty-looking paper dictionary.  Erin McKean eloquently describes how the lexicographers who make those dictionaries disagree with that approach here, but it wouldn’t take long for even complete lexicographical amateurs to start to see the holes in that line of logic.  New words are added to the dictionary every year; were they just figments of the imagination until that time?  More to the point, the act of printing a word in a way immortalizes it, such that it remains in the dictionary long after it ceases to have any meaning at all.  For example, it is both tragic and frankly absurd that the Oxford English Dictionary accepts the words “funniment” and even, I kid you not, “funniosity,” but not funner or funnest.  Are those words, which have fewer examples of use in written or spoken English than the number of letters they contain, somehow better or more real?

But we mustn’t forget, those who deny “funner” often state, that “fun” is only a noun, not an adjective.  We only have comparative and superlative forms for adjectives, not for nouns, so therefore “funner” and “funnest” must only be figments of our imagination.  To their credit, certainly the word “fun” is used as a noun quite often.  We can have a lot of fun; we can’t have a lot of enjoyable.  We can “make fun of” someone, just like other noun constructions like “making sense of” something.  On the other hand, there’s nothing about the status of “fun” as a noun that makes it any less viable as an adjective; there are literally hundreds of noun-adjective homonyms in English (e.g. every colour word in the language: a red firetruck or the deep red associated with it).

Still, some dictionaries like Oxford’s American online dictionary or the American Heritage Dictionary stubbornly pigeon-hole “fun” as a noun, often accepting its exceedingly rare use as a verb (meaning something akin to “tease” or “joke with”) while labeling the adjectival form “informal” or “slang.”  That’s a little, well, funny, given that the very same American Heritage Dictionary’s citation for informal use of fun as an adjective is a quote from Margaret Truman, daughter of the US President, in a public speech in the 1950s.  It’s weirder still given that the word “fun,” even when used as a noun, is not exactly among the snootier choices for that concept in the English lexicon.  How is “I’m having fun” any more formal than “this is a fun party”?  Oxford goes even further, though, stating that “the comparative and superlative forms funner and funnest are sometimes used but should be restricted to very informal contexts.”  Notice: “should be.”  Who the hell do those Oxford braggarts think they are?

While I was looking this up, I found several comments from anonymous online contributors saying that adjectival “fun” was some sort of “new development” and that it was only because it was new that it hadn’t been accepted yet.  Well, frankly no.  There are plenty of newer words that have been accepted, like “gramophone” and “photograph,” and even newer adjectives like “toasty,” “photographic,” and even words like “fugly.”  More importantly, however, it would be a mistake to say that the adjectival reading is some sort of neologism, and that it’s only in today’s materialist, consumerist culture that uneducated young people (and Margaret Truman) have started using the word improperly.  First off, that argument’s hard to reconcile with uses like “this is a fun little item,” spoken by a professor during an academic lecture.  Indeed, in that same corpus (called MICASE), the word “fun” was used almost a third of the time in contexts that only allow for an adjectival reading.  Second, in terms of the word’s etymology, funner and funnest both date back to the 18th century by conservative estimates.  So far as anyone can tell, “fun” probably comes from the Middle English word “fon,” from which we get other words like “fondle” and expressions like being “fond of” something.  Interestingly, that word was a verb, noun, and adjective, and even had the -ly suffix attached to it to make an adverb. The adjective form is at least as old as the nominal reading.  (If you ever need entertainment, just try adding -ly to random nouns around you and then try to make sense of the result.  You’ll find that words like “bedly,” “pillowly,” and “windowly” don’t quite roll off the tongue.)

Here’s the real kicker, though.  Since 2010, Merriam-Webster has listed the comparative and superlative forms as legitimate words, and it’s not alone.  The Scrabble Dictionary, which, if not exactly the pinnacle of lexicographic achievement, often plays a key role in word/non-word disputes, and has included both funner and funnest since 2008.  In sum, a dictionary is a piss-poor means of determining a word’s status as “real” or not, but even under the dictionary rule, funner and funnest are in a grey area.

Why, then, do ill-informed pedants still swagger about denouncing users of funner as “stupid” or “uncultured”? (Real quotes)  Some insist on “correcting” phrases like “the funnest party ever” to the distinctly less natural “the most fun party ever.”  At least that rules out the possibility of a noun interpretation.  You can’t have “the most enjoyment party ever.”  For adjectives, when we make comparative and superlative forms in English, we follow a pretty straightforward mechanism.  If it’s a single-syllable adjective, it gets -er/-est; if it has three or more syllables, then it’s always more/the most X; if it has two syllables, it’s more complicated and depends on the endings and stress position (cf. narrower vs. *politer), but that’s a side point.  Fun has one syllable.  So why would “fun” behave differently than every other single-syllable adjective in the English language?  (That’s actually an overstatement. There are examples like “bored” that act as adjectives, but I think it’s obvious how that’s quite different)
One might say that “it sounds wrong,” but in my opinion that’s probably attributable to our experience of being told that it’s supposed to sound wrong.  I doubt that there’s a native English speaker alive today who hasn’t at some point, probably when they were quite young, said funner or funnest and felt that it was perfectly natural.  We learn that it’s wrong, but we also learn all sorts of things that are later proven incorrect or, at least, vastly oversimplified.  Most of us also learn (from Shirley Jackson or somewhere else) that blindly, unquestioningly following the status quo is not a recipe for success.
The last bastion of hope for the naysayers is to resort to the argument that “only children say funner.”  At least then we could say that the word is an age-based dialectal marker.  On first glance, that might be appealing, but it turns out that it’s not just children who use the word in informal settings, either.  Bono said “the funnest thing” in his interview with 60 minutes, and multiple speakers have used funner and/or funnest on NBC’s Meet the Press–hardly the equivalent of schoolyard chats.  In written correspondence, the word “funnest” had a brief period of fairly widespread use as early as the 1820s according to Google Ngrams.  According to COCA, newspapers like The New York Times and USAToday and even academic articles have printed the words dozens of times, but always, of course, quoting someone else saying it, and usually a teenager or young person.  If professionals were to use the word without being facetious or campy, then they would probably be ridiculed for it.  But why?  On what grounds?  So far as I can see, the only reason over-zealous editors continue to stamp out the word is because they’ve had it stamped out of them.
I’m not saying that the words are well-suited to formal academic writing.  They’re clearly not, but first, that’s probably more due to semantics than morphology; it’s very rare that formal writing calls for comparative/superlative, subjective judgments of amusement levels anyway.  Second and more to the point, the word “toasty” (among plenty others) is even less well-suited to formal written contexts and neither do dictionaries put a derogatory “informal/slang” label on it, nor do people seem to have a problem with that word’s existence.  Funner and funnest are picked on because they’re frequent examples, but it’s precisely because they are so frequent that we should just get over it already and accept the words for what they are: highly useful communicative tools.
As Erin McKean says, if we embrace our language for the diverse, chaotic wonder it is instead of trying to police it, we’d probably lead happier lives.  It’s no wonder that she’s such a bubbly personality; she gets paid to study how words work, and she sees words for what they are: a means of “windowly” viewing into the infinite variability of the human experience.  Viewed in that light, lexicography sounds like one of the funnest professions I could imagine.

4 thoughts on “why ‘funner’ should be an accepted word

  1. Very well said. I couldn’t agree more. The corpus examples are especially convincing.

    I was almost going to not comment on this one, but I realized that it would be wrong to respond emphatically when I disagree and just nod in invisible agreement otherwise. : )

    • That’s kind of you to say, although I’m still kind of hoping for someone to come up with an anti-funner argument that I hadn’t thought of. There might be more to this than I know. Positive feedback helps motivation, but negative feedback forces rethinking. 😉

  2. If one considers mere to be an adjective in say ‘a mere youth’, the comparative doesn’t exist and the -est form really has a different sense: ‘slightest’.

    • That’s very true! “Mere” is a great example of a so-called “absolute adjective” (also called a “non-gradable adjective”), and mere is especially interesting precisely because it retains that vestige of a once more gradable form in the word “merest.” If you look up “mere” in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) or another etymology dictionary, you can see that the word once was gradable; it once meant something like “pure” or “undiluted,” so we would say “the merest white” almost like we would say “the purest white” now. In fact, the OED even cites a few cases of “merer” cropping up in the mid-19th century in things like “I have never seen people that seemed merer animals,” but that’s almost uninterpretable to us users of modern English today. We can’t say “less mere” or “more mere” anymore; something either is mere or it isn’t. That same thing is true for a whole class of adjectives like “absent,” “alive,” “perfect,” “unique,” “possible,” and so on. None of those adjectives have comparative or superlative forms (or take more/most).

      So you’re absolutely right (<– another non-gradable adjective) that the adjectival status of the word "fun" does not, on its own, motivate -er/-est. At least, if that was what you had meant to imply, then I agree. We'd also need to argue that something could be funner/more fun than something else. I think that's a pretty straightforward case. 🙂

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