May 28th, 2008
So fun / sit and set
by Barbara Wallraff
Susan Goin, of Rensselaer, N.Y., writes: “Is it grammatically incorrect to say ‘so fun’ -- as in ‘The party was so fun’? I can think of many uses of ‘so’ that to me are not questionable. But a friend of mine and her husband find it irritating and wrong when I use ‘so’ in the way I have cited.”
Dear Susan: The problem word isn’t actually “so” -- it’s “fun.” According to the traditional way of thinking, “fun” is a noun, not an adjective. So the grammar of “What fun!” is like “What a surprise!” It’s true that many nouns can be used in front of other nouns as if they were adjectives -- consider “surprise” and “dinner” in “surprise party” and “dinner party.” But these words lack some qualities of full-fledged adjectives. For instance, you can’t modify them with adverbs -- like “so.” That is, no one ever says, “The party was so surprise” or “It was so dinner.” If you think of “fun” the same way, then of course “The party was so fun” is wrong. You can, however, say, “The party was a lot of fun” or “It was so much fun.”
Nancy Hutchinson, of Monticello, Maine, writes: “Are there new rules for using ‘sit’ and ‘set’? I used to think that ‘sit’ was for living beings, as in ‘He just sits in that chair all day,’ and ‘set’ was for inanimate objects (except for ‘setting’ hens!), as in ‘His house sets on a huge corner lot.’ However, I’ve been noticing ‘sit’ used in almost all situations, as in ‘That new factory is sitting on oceanfront property.’ Is this new, or did I misunderstand standard usage all along?”
Dear Nancy: Good for you for noticing and wondering, rather than just assuming everyone else is wrong. You’re right that people “sit,” not “set,” in chairs. You’re right that hens can “set” on eggs, and when they do, they’re an exception to the rule. But the rule isn’t what you think. Generally, whoever or whatever “sets” does it to someone or something else -- as in “set the book down.” But people and things just plain “sit.” To put it in grammatical terms, “set” is transitive; it takes an object. “Sit” is not; it doesn’t. So your second example would correctly read “His house sits on a huge corner lot.” And “That new factory is sitting ...” is just fine. However, someone did “set” that factory there. See the difference?
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