March 28, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: fun as an adjective & compare with/without direct object

Posted in compare with/without a direct object, fun as an adjective at 5:45 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Fun as an adjective

A reader writes:

I have heard the word fun, the phrase more fun, and the neologism, funnest, used as adjectives on the radio recently, such as “This was the funnest time we had” or “This was the most fun time we had.”  The dictionary I consulted states that fun is a noun.  Can fun be properly used as an adjective?

I have to admit that I have been guilty of using ‘fun’ as an adjective:

That was a really fun day.

But, to date, I have not used the comparative (funner) or superlative forms (funnest) in my conversations. They don’t fall trippingly off my lips. If I did want to use fun in a comparative or superlative form, I would say ‘more fun’ or ‘most fun’ as that sounds better to me.

But I have to tell you, dear reader, that this ship has sailed. If not completely accepted, its use is very, very widespread. I have a hunch that no-one under thirty years old even knows that ‘fun’ as an adjective can even be perceived as non-standard. There’s actually a good reason for such usage according to Garner in his 2009 tome, Garner’s Modern American Usage.

(1) Unlike other nouns of emotion, fun hasn’t had a corresponding adjective to mean ‘productive of fun.’…Most other nouns of emotion have adjectives which mean ‘productive of” <excitement-exciting> <fear-fearful> <gloom-gloomy> (sadness-sad>. But not fun which is among the most popular nouns of emotion…(2) Because fun is always a mass noun, it never appears with an article. So although we say This is a delight or a joy, we cannot say a fun. Instead we say This is fun—and this predicate noun looks like it might be a predicate adjective.

Garner says that using ‘fun’ is still a ‘casualism,’ but its use is ubiquitous.

I’d say so. It’s adjective form is even included in the Merriam Webster Dictionary, without any caveat that is informal or colloquial.

I still would not use it in our formal writing, but, honestly, when does ‘fun’ come up in our scientific research writing? I truly hope that everyone thinks that at least aspects of our work are ‘fun,’ but we never write about what a fun time we are having in our labs.

The jury’s still out on ‘funner’ and ‘funnest,’ but you never know. One thing I do know is the writing the wlut is really fun!

Tip 2: Compare with and without an object

I’ve been reviewing lots of proposals lately and recently read one which was excellent overall, but which had one phrasing throughout that made me crazy. Here’s an example:

This development will allow us to compare across groups and…

Compare what? I would sigh to myself. You don’t just ‘compare across groups’ there has to be something to compare. Yet the phrase kept coming up

These measures can be used to compare across different health conditions…

 I tried to ignore it, but that’s really not my way. I’m pretty much a stickler when it comes to grant proposal writing.

So I called this investigator’s mentor and asked what will be compared—the answer was ‘lots of things…we are going to compare across groups.’ Hmm, I thought, this is a problem. We have to find a better way of stating that we are going to be comparing lots of things across groups. Then it came to me—simple and straightforward, indeed. We can talk about making comparisons without specifying what it is we are comparing. So I carefully went through the document and changed the phrasing to this:

This development will allow us to make comparisons across groups and…

These measures can be used to make comparisons across different health conditions…

Ta da!

I was happy and decided to write this up for the wlut.

As a transitive verb, that is, a verb that takes a direct object, ‘compare’ means to examine something to discern the similarities and/or differences.

We are going to compare the results of this experiment with the results of the last experiment to see if one is more efficient.

As an intransitive verb, that is, a verb that doesn’t take an object, ‘compare’ means to be worthy of comparison.

This milkshake doesn’t compare with the incredible milkshake I had at Burgatory last year.

The two lectures really do not compare.

So what’s the problem? It’s this. When I started looking at some of the online dictionaries, I found this as one of the definitions of the intransitive form of ‘compare.’

Make comparisons

You’ve got to be kidding me, I groaned. If that definition is okay, then, this phrasing:

This development will allow us to compare across groups and…

is okay, as well. That didn’t sit well with me.

So I decided to explore this a little bit, and this is what I found.  First, it is true that some dictionaries have ‘make comparisons’ as a definition for the intransitive ‘compare,’ but it is always the last definition meaning it is used this way least often. Second, while some dictionaries include this definition, these dictionaries are in the minority. The majority of dictionaries do not include it at all as a possible definition. Indeed, some (primarily British) dictionaries indicate that compare is always transitive. Third, none of the authorities I rely on (Garner, Chicago Manual of Style, AMA manual of Style, Fowler, Goodman and Edwards, etc.) permit this use of the intransitive ‘compare.’

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know language is always changing, and as you know I salute that. However, while this may become the norm, it isn’t there yet. It feels lazy to use ‘compare’ instead of ‘make comparisons’ (please know that I don’t, for a second, think that this investigator is lazy—she is very young and just doesn’t know), and I am not going there—nor will I permit it in the grant proposals that I review. So there. My reasoning is that some of the reviewers may be like me (I’m purposely avoiding the age thing) and will share my reaction to seeing compare without an object.

I’m really trying to help.

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