Here we go again.
“Get in the funnest sport there is.”
Ten industry partners, including the youth-sports organization USA Swimming and several swimsuit manufacturers, are collaborating on a summer-long campaign to encourage kids to join a swim club or team—in other words, to view swimming as a sport instead of a grimly utilitarian anti-drowning measure.
The campaign includes a series of promotional spots featuring kids having fun and showing off. In a column about the ads, the New York Times’s Andrew Adam Newman wrote:
The spots direct viewers to a website for the effort, SwimToday.org, and promote a hashtag that will not endear the organization to English teachers, #funnestsport.
It’s not the first time funnest (or funner, for that matter) has pushed peevers’ buttons. Back in 2008, Apple described a new iPod Touch as “the funnest iPod ever,” and “people all over the Internet freaked out,” wrote Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty. Ben Zimmer devoted a Visual Thesaurus column to funner and funnest, affirming that they are “real words,” albeit “nonstandard, colloquial, informal” ones. He provided historical perspective:
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.
In other words, most people today won’t protest if you say “The party was fun.” (In his new book Bad Language, which I wrote about earlier this week, Ammon Shea notes that fun began to be used as an adjective in the middle of the 19th century.) Still, “creeping ‘adjectivization’ can sometimes only go so far,” Zimmer observed:
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.
The argument failed to convince some of his readers. “I refuse to allow advertising to dictate the evolution of the language,” wrote one commenter. Funner is “gut-clenchingly awful,” protested another.
In the six years since that column was published, inventive comparatives and superlatives have flourished in ad copy. I’ve written about some of them: closerer and deliciouser, freshershist and Maker’s-er, goodest and funner-er. So why does funnest get singled out for special opprobrium?
OK, Karen. Fixed it.
“Which sounds the most fun to you?” Some peevers will say it’s still wrong, all wrong—that there should be a “like” after “should,” or that fun cannot, should not, must not ever be an adjective. Ammon Shea sums up the objections to fun as a noun like this: “If you try to use it adjectivally you might as well say ‘that was so enjoyment.’”
Something similar has been occurring, over roughly the same period of time, with stupider and stupidest. Ammon Shea devotes six pages in Bad Language to the debate over the status of stupider, which detractors insist is “not a real word.” Shea casts a rational eye. “In some cases,” he writes, “two-syllable adjectives can be modified with -er and -est, and in some cases they cannot—it depends largely on how the word ends. Those that end with a vowel, or a vowel sound (such as yellow or fancy), tend to be fine with -er and -est.”
And, he adds, “We did not used to be so worried about tacking –er and –est endings onto words. … Shakespeare was fond of inflecting adjectives in a way that would make a present-day English teacher burble, using honourablest, ancienter, eminentest, famousest, delectablest, and many such others.”
To return to the SwimToday hashtag, I vote in favor. It fits the subject: it sounds like what a kid having fun would say. (Linguists would say it’s in the appropriate register.) In fact, if I were the copywriter on that cannonball ad I’d swap out “which sounds most fun” for “which sounds funnest.” It’s just naturaler.
Besides, school’s out. Let’s relax the rules!
But even if you disagree, take heart: funnest is not evidence that the English language is headed for fiery doom. I’ll let Ammon Shea have the last word:
You can use funner and funnest, but you should bear in mind that anyone who chastises you for this use is unlikely to be interested in hearing your explanation for why it should be acceptable. These words will grate on the ears of many for some while to come. The process of an acceptable usage becoming unacceptable can be a long one, and the reverse process is true as well.
See you in the water.