September 1997 Word Court

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O"fun ideas" recently. We have learned that fun is not a descriptive, but we see it used that way all the time. And "everyone" says fun vacation, fun movie, and lots of other things. Is this correct usage now?

Grade Five


Not that he's made a scientific study of it, but the psycholinguist Steven Pinker says he can tell whether people are under or over thirty years old by whether they're willing to accept fun as a full-fledged adjective, or what you call a descriptive.
having funLet me guess: you are all under thirty. Regardless, you are quite right to question whether standard English allows fun to be used as an adjective. It doesn't, really. Fun may exhibit some adjective-like qualities at times, but it is a noun. And I'm not telling you how old I am.

If you'll promise not to say "I had the funnest time" or "That was so fun," though, I'll tell you why fun ideas, and fun movie really aren't so bad. Lots of nouns are used "attributively," or as adjectives in front of other nouns. Think of science-project ideas and Christmas vacation and action movie. You won't find science or project or Christmas or action in the dictionary as an adjective; each is a noun, like fun. But all these words, and most nouns, can be used attributively.
Being clear about this point of grammar has its pluses and its minuses. Sticklers are likely to assume that you're misusing fun where it's not obviously a noun, so maybe you should steer clear of attributive uses when you want to make a good impression on people over thirty.

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Ibring and take. She keeps insisting that she will bring our daughter to the library, and I say that my daughter is going nowhere unless her mother takes her.
very demanding childI am unable to convince my wife that she is wrong about this and needs to turn from her grammatically evil ways. Please help this syntaxed family.
James Raffan


The fundamental rule is that bring, in its relevant sense, refers to movement toward the speaker ("Will you bring me some new library books?"), and take to movement away from the speaker ("How nice of you to take back the ones I've read"). These verbs can also indicate movement toward or away from anyone from whose perspective the action is being viewed ("She brought the librarian a gift. The librarian took it home"). Curiously, with these words seemingly opposite meanings can overlap, particularly when people are bringing or taking someone or something with them ("Let's bring [or take] plenty of books with us"). But I gather that your daughter isn't just accompanying her mother; she's the reason for the trip. Your wife, diligent mother though she may be, then, is not bringing but taking her.

*   *   *

IThe Boston Globe, I read, "Begging the question of whether simplicity is a virtue or a vice..." For centuries philosophers and logicians have used beg the question (and its Latin version, petitio principii) to refer to the fallacy of assuming that which is in dispute --as in the presumption behind
translation the question "Have you stopped beating your wife?" Lately, however, the phrase seems to have been turned into a sorry attempt at an upscale version of either
evade or invite the question. Is it too late to save this fine old phrase?

Daniel Dennett


I can't find any evidence that the meaning "invites the question" is common, but reputable dictionaries have been accepting the meaning "evades the question" for decades. Still, things haven't reached the point that anyone is saying that the phrase in its traditional meaning is wrong. That meaning is in trouble because it is confusing. It has nothing to do with what most of us think of as begging; nor does it necessarily involve a question (an example that H. W. Fowler gives in Modern English Usage is that "capital punishment is necessary because without it murders would increase"). And petitio principii, from which the phrase was long ago translated and which is generally given as a synonym, is an expression that doesn't come up much in conversation. So we have nothing to help us call to mind beg the question when it is wanted. Maybe we should all lodge the idea of "asserting what needs to be proved" in our minds. When that seems to be what's going on, it's the moment to say, "Excuse me -- I do believe you're begging the question."


Have you recently had a language dispute that you would like this column to resolve? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send E-mail to MsGrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court.

Barbara Wallraff is a senior editor of The Atlantic and the author of the bimonthly feature Word Court.

Illustrations by Mary Anne Lloyd

The Atlantic Monthly; September 1997; Word Court; Volume 280, No. 3; page 120.



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