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Compared to other languages, English is in practice pretty indifferent with regards to parts of speech. The lines are often blurry. I'm curious about the following phrase:

It's fun.

Usually, I'd think that "fun" is a noun. For instance I can have lots of it. However, there are phrasings where it is used much like a qualifier.

It was a fun ride.

Just looking at the structure, it could be either an adjective or a noun in the phrase in question.

It's fun/milk. It's fun/nice.

My first impulse was "noun" but seeing how there is no article and how most phrasings that express roughly the same would use an adjective, I am not so sure anymore. Here are my questions.

  • What part of speech is "fun" in the phrase?
  • Do native speakers clearly perceive it as noun or adjective respectively or would both readings make sense on an intuition level?
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  • It can actually be seen as both, since we don't change the linking verb between predicate nouns and adjectives. Fun is both a noun and an adjective. I as a native speaker do not think "noun" or "adjective" when saying this sentence or others like it; I just think "fun" and intuitively understand it to mean "fun". Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 19:36
  • To elaborate on "seeing how there is no article", not all nouns need articles. Plural nouns don't necessarily need an article: "I see cats" and neither do uncountable nouns. Fun is an uncountable noun, like water: "I drink water." Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 19:38
  • I remember hearing somewhere that "fun" used to only be a noun, but many people nowadays use it as an adjective as well. Its originally being a noun supposedly explains the non-standard nature of *funner, *funnest.
    – herisson
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 19:51
  • Intuititively I think of fun as an adjective in It's fun, analogous to It's nice, but it can also be a noun in We're going to have fun.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 20:56
  • etymonline.com/… The etymology implies that both the adjectival use and the noun use arose from the OE verb fonnen. The adjectival has older attestation, but that doesn't always prove source. It is becoming obsolete, but fun is still occasionally used as a verb as tchrist alluded to in another comment. I agree with ScotM that flexibility is the more accurate perception of the native speaker when it comes to parts of speech. It drives the analytic types crazy, that we don't feel compelled to draw inside the lines :-)
    – Good A.M.
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 16:45

5 Answers 5

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Indifferent is not the correct word to describe the way native English speakers regard parts of speech; it's more like flexible:

In the unambiguous expression:

the children enjoyed the fun and games

Fun is a noun.

In the unambiguous expression:

the children enjoyed the fun games

Fun is an adjective.

In the ambiguous expression:

it's fun

The larger context will determine the part of speech:

Fun is renaming it as a predicate noun.

or

Fun is describing it as a predicate adjective.

As long as people can perceive, use and interpret parts of speech properly, it is not so important to label them. We teach our children to label parts of speech so that they can learn to speak, read and write properly. As instructors, the labels remain supremely relevant to us, but once our students can speak, read and write, the labels quickly become less relevant to them. Those who never discuss parts of speech, tend to forget the significance of the labels, because they don't need the labels to communicate.

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  • It almost doesn't make a difference in the ambiguous case. Fun and games are fun games.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 22:13
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    @Eman "Part of speech" is merely a madey-uppy classification scheme dreamt up to try to describe what words are doing. It is imperfect and approximate at best, with holes and paradoxes like any other formal system. Native speakers couldn't care less because such labels DO NOT MATTER to them, nor should they. They know how to use words correctly without needing to know which of the coupla dozen parts of speech somebody decided those words "are".
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 23:26
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    @Emanuel Again, that doesn't matter to a native speaker; it's just a translator's problem. And even there, the putative part of speech is much less important than the actual meaning of the word. For example I can tell you to look up ban as a noun, and you still will not know what I am talking about, particularly considering that I was talking about the governors or viceroys of certain military districts in Hungary, Slavonia, and Croatia who take command during times of war, and when I chose to ban someone, they become a ban temporarily. See the problem? Parts of speech don't matter much.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 23:39
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    Perlas a los cerdos!
    – ScotM
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 23:44
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    Now you’re just funnin’ with ’em. :)
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 0:17
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The adverb "very" can modify adjectives, so if "fun" in "It's fun" were an adjective, you would be able to say *"It's very fun." But you can't (at least, not in my opinion). That would have to be expressed as "It's a lot of fun", which has "fun" as object of a preposition and so a noun. So, I think the "fun" you asked about is a noun and not an adjective.

Elsewhere, "fun" is an adjective and can be modified by "very": "The carousel is a very fun ride", where "ride" is a noun modified by the adjective "fun" and "fun" is modified by "very".

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  • Very good point. Google Ngram shows very few hits for very fun, many for a lot of fun.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 22:53
  • What do you think of Uno? It's fun! It's quite fun. It's uproariously fun! It's exceedingly fun!
    – ScotM
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 23:33
  • Uh, Arduino Uno?
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 23:52
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    Fun didn't use to be an adjective. The original 1828 Webster's dictionary has "FUN, noun Sport; vulgar merriment. A low word." The first Webster's International (1892) has "fun, n. Sport; merriment." This is probably why we say more fun and not funner, and why "it's very fun" sounds wrong. Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 2:00
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    'The adverb "very" can modify adjectives, so if "fun" in "It's fun" were an adjective, you would be able to say *"It's very fun." ' is far from adequate. *'A very chemical reaction.' Yes, 'fun' is used largely as a descriptor rather than a classifier (or identifier). But 'funnest' now seems to be accepted (though probably not the single-word comparative, as you say). Probably best to say that the conversion of 'fun' from noun to (additionally) adjective is under way but incomplete. Commented Jun 3 at 10:41
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"Fun" is at the tail end of the transition from noun adjunct (a noun used as an adjective, very common in English) to adjective proper. You can usually tell the difference by the presence or absence of a comparative and superlative form - noun adjuncts, as nouns, don't have them, while adjectives proper do - and the use of adverbs (for adjectives) versus adjectives (for noun adjuncts) to modify them.

For me, Greg Lee's test doesn't quite work - "it's very fun" sounds perfectly fine to me, but it has been almost ten years, so... And for what it's worth "It's a lot of fun" also sounds fine to me, even as "it's a lot of happy" reminds me of doge.

More telling is the comparative and superlative form - the Norman "more fun" and "most fun", rather than the Saxon "*funner" and "*funnest", which is expected for monosyllables. The continued use of the Norman comparative and superlative is the strongest (synchronic) evidence we have for the fact that "fun" is more noun-like than adjective-like, even as it is being reanalyzed as an adjective.

(Personal anecdote: I was actually taught in grade school that "fun" was an adjective, but irregularly used more/most rather than -er/-est. It wasn't until I reached college that I learned that "fun" is etymologically a noun, and that's why it was irregular in this way.)

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Some additional tests, which show ways in which fun works as a noun but not as an adjective:

You can qualify fun using an adjective but not using an adverb. As Greg Lee has pointed out, "very fun" doesn't work.

  • What/*How fun!
  • It was such/*so fun.
  • It was not much/*not very fun.

There is no funly:

  • We chatted amiably/*funly.
  • The author enjoyably/*funly mixes science with amusing anecdotes.

When people coordinate fun with something else, do they use fun as a noun or as an adjective? As a noun, in most cases. Google NGrams shows that the 10 most popular fills for the ngram "fun and (word)" are 8 nouns, plus "the" and "a". Of the 10 most popular fills for the ngram "(word) and fun", 7 are nouns. On the other hand, the three most popular fills for the ngram "(word) and fun" are adjectives: easy, interesting, exciting.

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  • All three of the examples you give--"How fun!," "It was so fun," and "It was not very fun"--sound correct to me.
    – alphabet
    Commented Jun 3 at 5:58
  • Very well hedged, but not completely balanced. 'A more fun day ...' and 'funnest' are quite common nowadays, not nounal behaviour. But +1 for the '[W] and fun' data. Commented Jun 3 at 10:49
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Nouns can be used as compound elements for compound nouns as in fruit tree, oil well etc. If it comes to describing compound nouns consisting of two nouns I would not use the term adjective for the first noun. This is a confusion of terms. There should be special terms for word classes, word groups, sentence structures and word composition. If one term is used in several categories this is unclear terminology.

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  • Good point! It would be perfectly acceptable to analyze fun games as a compound noun, but the persistent use of that construction in multiple compounds eventually gives rise to an adjectival designation!
    – Good A.M.
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 16:55
  • Compound nouns are dictionary entries. At least you find them in larger dictionaries. A combination of an adjective and a noun is normally not registered in dictionaries. With the exception of cases where adjective + noun are a fixed expression as red herring. But if a compond noun is decribed as adjective + noun it is totally unclear what is meant. The first compound element may be a normal adjective as in red herring or it may be a noun as in herring gull. And I think such differences should be described with clear terms.
    – rogermue
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 19:08
  • Confusion of labels. Finding fun in a dictionary as an adjective, noun and verb is unsatisfactory? Sounds like you are proposing to scrap the status quo and reorganize our study of the English language. Sounds like an interesting dissertation :-)
    – Good A.M.
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 20:29
  • There are dictionaries or grammars which have special terms such as combining form.
    – rogermue
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 20:36
  • I've just found a pair like heavyweight and a heavy weight. It would not be appropriate to say heavy is an adjective in both cases. Actually that explains nothing and you don't see what is meant.
    – rogermue
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 7:36

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