A pun is a wordplay that uses the many meanings of a term or similar-sounding words to create a humorous or rhetorical effect. Puns exploit the use of:
- Homophones – A word pronounced like another but has a different meaning. For example, ate and eight.
- Homographs -Words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. For example, lead and lead.
- Metonyms – A word or expression used as a substitute for something that it’s closely associated with. For example, using 10 Downing Street, or Number 10, to refer to the Prime Minister or the UK Government.
- Figurative language – Using words that deviate from their conventional order and meaning to make communication more colorful and evocative. Figurative language includes things like alliteration, oxymoron, and metaphors. For example, ‘The world’s your oyster.’
Puns are different from malapropisms. Malapropisms involve the mistaken use of one word in place of a similar-sounding one, while puns are deliberate expressions that exploit a word or phrase’s multiplicity of meanings.
Puns are often used in jokes, newspaper headlines, and marketing. However, they appear in many genres, and their history in writing and speech stretches back thousands of years.
Different types of puns
Homophonic puns use the different meanings of similar-sounding words for humorous or rhetorical effect. For example:
- The butcher didn’t take the risk as the steaks were too high.
- Making macaroni cheese was grate fun.
- Planting trees fills me with be-leaf that we can save the planet.
- May the fourth be with you.
Homographic puns can function in two ways: they either use words spelled the same but have various meanings, or they use a word with two different meanings. For example:
- The underwater musician played the bass.
- My shoe is a foot long.
Recursive puns rely on interpreting the first part of a statement to understand the second. For example:
- Immanuel doesn’t pun; he does Kant. – Oscar Wilde
- Infinity is not in finity.
Visual puns use logos, emblems, insignia, and other graphic techniques to create more meaning in an image. For example:
Famous pun examples for kids
‘Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.’
This pun plays on the similar sound of ‘denial’ and ‘the Nile’ (the river in Egypt) to open up new meanings. It’s often attributed to Mark Twain, although there’s no objective evidence to support that he was the first to say it.
‘The Mouse’s Tale’ in Alice in Wonderland
In Lewis Carroll’s story, the Mouse begins his poem by stating, ‘Mine is a long and sad tale!’ The pun comes from the fact that Alice mistakes the word ‘tale’ for ‘tail’ as she responds, ‘It is a long tail, certainly, but why do you call it sad?’
‘If you’re going through Hell, keep going.’
‘Going through hell’ is a common expression that refers to someone having a tough time. This clever pun plays on the word ‘going’ literal meaning, which implies movement. It suggests that a hell is a place you can ‘go through’ before reaching a place that’s not so hellish. The pun is often attributed to Winston Churchill, although it’s unclear who was the first to use it.
‘Ask for me tomorrow, and you’ll find me a grave man.’
When Mercutio is stabbed fatally in Romeo and Juliet, he mutters these words shortly before he dies. This is because Shakespeare plays on the double meaning of ‘grave,’ which means both ‘serious’ and ‘a hole dug in the ground to receive a coffin.’
‘Thou art Peter, and I will build my church upon this rock (Petros).’ (Matthew 16:18)
Jesus’ pun is the foundation of the Christian Church, which plays on the double meaning of ‘Petros’ (‘Peter’ and ‘rock’).
Fun pun examples for kids
Puns that function as jokes
- Where do polar bears vote? The North Poll.
- What do you call a knight who is afraid to fight? Sir Render.
- Why did the tiger spit out the clown? Because he tasted funny.
- Why did the spider go to the computer? To check his website.
- Why was six afraid of 7? Because 7, 8, 9.
- What do astronauts do before throwing a party in space? They planet.
- How do you make a sausage roll? Push it down a hill.
- This is awkward.
- Whale, whale, whale… look who was right again.
- You have a cat to kitten me right now.
- Let minnow what you think.
- He didn’t do it on porpoise.
- Don’t be so hippo-critical.
- Let me know if you want a picnic and an alpaca lunch.
- What qualifications do you have that’ll make you a good fit for this role at the zoo?
- You otter check that out.
Puns in headlines
- Three-0 Walcott (This was used when ex-Arsenal player Theo Walcott scored a hat-trick and could also work to announce his 30th birthday.)
- Gas Information Leaked
- Wages Frozen for Ice-Cream Sellers
- Barman in Bitter Row with Boss
- Train Drivers’ Union Talks Go off the Rails
Funny puns examples for kids
- What do you call a sleeping cow? A bull-dozer!
- What do you call a bear with no teeth? A gummy-bear!
- What did the fungi say to his wife? I have so mushroom in my heart for you.
- What did the milk say to the orange cordial? Juice, be yourself.
- What did the dog say when he sat on sandpaper? Ruff!
- What did the tailor say to her sewing machine? You are sew amazing.
- What do you call a thieving alligator? A crookadile.
What are some pun exercises for children?
- Go through a list of puns and see if the children understand how they work. Then, look for the different linguistic features outlined above.
- Discuss how the puns you’ve discussed function. Are they humorous or rhetorical? Ask children what the author wanted to convey with each particular pun.
- Try writing your puns in lessons. Come up with a list of words that have two meanings and a list of words that sound the same as one another. Start a class discussion about how you can try making your puns, and then see what children can come up with!
- Make a pun display full of children’s work. This can include pun posters, examples, and visual puns!
What is the difference between a pun and a joke?
While puns can be jokes, and jokes can be puns, they’re not the same thing. A pun does not have to be a joke and vice versa.
Puns necessitate wordplay, and while wordplay is often a feature of a joke, it’s not essential. Plus, the primary function of jokes is comedic, while puns can function simply as a rhetorical device.
What does ‘no pun intended’ mean?
Often, when people say the phrase ‘no pun intended,’ the language they’ve used functions as a pun without their deliberate intention to create a humorous or rhetorical effect.
For example, a tailor tells his friend he’s had to close his business. His friend replies, ‘Why? Did you have a bad patch? No pun intended.’ The friend says ‘no pun intended’ to assure his friend that he’s not being insensitive and making jokes at his friend’s misfortune, but instead has used the word ‘patch’ without necessarily considering its double meaning.
How do puns function in literature?
In literature, characters who use puns are often witty, gifted with the agility of thought, and skilled in their use of language. Puns can also create ambiguity, leaving characters and readers in suspense.
Shakespeare was a champion of using puns, and they were often employed by his most intelligent characters, such as Hamlet.