Changing usage: Fun as an adjective

A reader sent this note:

On page 5C of the Monday, October 30, 2007 N&O, under “FINALS”, the blurb begins “How fun would it be….”. I’m wondering who could have written this. I’m under the impression that whoever writes for a newspaper is a professional communicator and should really know basic English.

The word “fun” is a noun, and only a noun, yet it is used here as if it were an adjective. It’s comparable to writing “how house” or “how table”. One cannot write “how fun”, “so fun”, “very fun” and so forth. Probably the word “much” should be inserted between “How” and “fun”.

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I think the person who wrote that phrase probably is a professional communicator and does know basic English. I also think the writer of that small phrase was trying to be informal. But, as this message indicates, informal usage that sounds fine in speech can be grating in writing.

“Fun” is often used as predicate nominative: That was fun. Some people analyzing that sentence might think “fun” is a predicate adjective. Those people don’t see anything wrong with using “fun” as a modifier: That was a fun ride. “Fun” becomes an attributive noun — a word that works as an adjective does. Then it’s a short step to use “fun” as an adjective: That ride was so fun that I have to go again. That last sentence would be perfectly fine to say to your friend at the amusement park, but many would say it’s unacceptable in formal writing. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage finds widespread instances of “fun” as an adjective in writing from the 1960s, and the editors note that it is used “as a quasi-predicate adjective in all contexts.”

Even in writing, “how fun would it be” doesn’t make me want to beat the writer about the head and shoulders and urge that he or she be sent to remedial English class. I think newspapers can use slang, colloquialisms and informal language. Context is important. The phrase “how fun would it be” appeared in a sports piece, a place where readers can expect conversational and informal language.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.