Answering the tough questions
We’ve all been there. A student asks a question that stumps us, and our natural inclination is to say “just because” or “that’s just the way it is.” Those of us who are native speakers may have never thought about the grammatical explanation…we just know what sounds right and wrong. One of the most challenging aspects of being an English teacher is to learn why we speak and write the way we do. In fact, I think my next blog post may be about how to handle these types of questions…what are our options?
As a specific example, I remember several instances of students getting confused over the adjective “fun” when using it in the comparative or superlative forms. And, to be honest, I’ve been guilty of using the classic excuse: “It’s an exception.” It’s about time I did some research into the why.
Big = bigger, so fun = funner?
In English, we have clear rules about forming the comparative (-er or more) forms of adjectives:
- If the adjective has one syllable, add -er. For example, big becomes bigger.
- If the adjective has two syllables and ends in -y, change -y to -i and add -er. For example, funny becomes funnier.
- If the adjective has two (and doesn’t end in -y) or more syllables, add more. For example, beautiful becomes more beautiful.
The superlative (-est or the most) forms of adjectives follow the same rules:
- If the adjective has one syllable, add the + -est. For example, big becomes the biggest.
- If the adjective has two syllables and ends in -y, change -y to -i and add the + -est. For example, funny becomes the funniest.
- If the adjective has two (and doesn’t end in -y) or more syllables, add the + most. For example, beautiful becomes the most beautiful.
Following these rules, then, “fun” should take the forms “funner” and “the funnest.” This is logical to students, but makes native speakers shudder. We know instinctively that these forms sound wrong. But why? And how do we explain it?
The history’s the thing
Unfortunately, none of the three style guides I have on my desk address this issue. I’ve heard it is addressed in the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, but I don’t own that one yet. So my research led me to the internet, and, once again, Grammar Girl came up with a clear explanation. I love Grammar Girl!
It turns out that “fun” was originally only used as a noun. In fact, some grammar gurus would argue that it should still only be used as a noun, thus making the whole funner/more fun debate moot. But language is constantly evolving, and I for one would say that it’s perfectly natural to accept “fun” as an adjective…I’ve been using it that way my whole life. So if we accept that “fun” can be used as an adjective, then the reason for the lack of comparative and superlative forms becomes clear: it was not always so. Because “fun” was only a noun at one point, it hasn’t taken on all the usual adjectival forms. We can say “more fun” or “the most fun” because it is possible to use “more” and “the most” with nouns (think of “more money” and “the most money,” for example).
So what’s the verdict?
Perhaps one day, “funner” and “funnest” will be part of our everyday language. In fact, much to my surprise, my copy of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has the following entry: fun adj, sometimes funner sometimes funnest (ca. 1846). My copy of the Oxford Canadian Dictionary of Current English doesn’t mention “funner” or “funnest” at all.
For now, the next time students ask us why they can’t say “funner,” I suggest telling them it’s because “fun” was originally only a noun and the -er and -est forms are not commonly accepted. Stick to “more fun” and “the most fun”!
Have fun with this,