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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.”

Again, that’s the traditional view. Since at least the 1960s, however, dictionaries have noted that “fun” is also used informally as an adjective. Somehow, insisting that one’s friends must be grammatically correct in their use of “fun” -- of all words -- strikes me as a bit uptight. Or maybe your friends just wanted to make the point. Anyway, that’s probably what is going through their heads when they object to “so 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?

Unfortunately, hens aren’t the only exception to the rule. The sun just plain “sets.” So does glue -- and so do bones. Tables and auditoriums “sit” certain numbers of people. No wonder you were confused!




© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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