What Is a Pun? Learn About the Different Types of Puns in Literature and Tips on How to Write a Great Pun

Written by MasterClass

Jun 3, 2019 • 4 min read

“A boiled egg every morning is hard to beat.” This is an example of a pun: a witty use of wordplay for comical effect. Puns have many uses in both writing and everyday speech: they can be used to achieve a rhetorical or humorous effect in a piece of writing, for example, or as an icebreaker at a party. Bad puns, in particular, can elicit the same groan-inducing reaction as dad jokes.


What Is a Pun?

A pun is a figure of speech that exploits a word’s meaning. For example: “Make like a tree and leave.” Puns are often used in writing to create humor. Another word for a pun is “paronomasia,” which derives from the Greek word “paronomazein,” which means to make a change in a name. Puns can add humor to writing, and, in some cases, are used as Easter eggs—an unexpected, hidden joke—to entertain perceptive readers.

5 Different Types of Puns

Puns can be classified in different ways, depending on the intentional effect of the phrase. Puns can put similar-sounding words together, pair terms with similar meanings, or play on a word with multiple definitions. Here are five different types of puns:

  1. Homophonic pun. A homophonic pun uses paired homonyms: words that sound the same but have different meanings. For example: “Why is it so wet in England? Because many kings and queens have reigned there.” This pun interchanges the words “rained” and “reigned.”
  2. Compound pun. A compound pun contains more than one pun in the same sentence. For example: “Never scam in the jungle; cheetahs are always spotted.”
  3. Homographic pun. A homographic pun, also referred to as a heteronymic pun, plays on words that are spelled the same way but have a double meaning. Because these puns rely on spelling, they are visual and must be read to be understood. Here is an example of a homographic pun that transposes the word “flies”: “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”
  4. Visual pun. A visual pun, or a graphological pun, does not use phonetic writing. Visual puns can be achieved through imagery, graphics, or logos. An example of a visual pun would be an image of a fork in the middle of a street, a take on the common “fork in the road” metaphor.
  5. Recursive pun. A recursive pun is a two-part pun. One needs to recognize or understand the first part of the pun in order for the second part to make sense. For example, the pun “May the Fourth be with you” requires an understanding of the Star Wars movies and the phrase “May the force be with you,” as well as the knowledge that May 4 is Star Wars Day.

4 Examples of Puns in Literature

Examples of puns can be traced as far back as 184 B.C., with the plays of Roman playwright Plautus. Here are some examples of popular puns throughout literature.

  1. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare plays on the meaning of the word heavy as both a descriptor for weight and sadness. Romeo says: “Give me a torch: I am not for this ambling; Being but heavy I will bear the light.”
  2. Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest. The play’s biggest pun is in the title. Earnest is a play on the name Ernst. The character Jack, who is neither earnest in nature or Ernst by name, ends up being both by the novel’s end. Jack says: “I always told you, Gwendolen, my name was Ernest, didn’t I? Well, it is Ernest after all. I mean it naturally is Ernest.”
  3. Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The book filled with puns to help illustrate the abnormality of Wonderland. Here is an example of a pun, in which Alice confuses the words “tale” and “tail”: “‘Mine is a long and a sad tale! said the Mouse, turning to Alice, and sighing. ‘It is a long tail, certainly,’ said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse’s tail; ‘but why do you call it sad?’”
  4. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations. Take this sentence, for example, in which the different meanings of the word “point” are exploited: “They seemed to think the opportunity lost, if they failed to point the conversation to me, every now and then, and stick the point into me.”
  5. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita. Nabokov uses many multilingual puns in this classic. For example, the name of the character Humbert is a pun in both French and Spanish: Humbert means “shadow” in French, and “man” in Spanish.

5 Tips for Making a Good Pun

Here are some tips for crafting winning puns in your writing.

  1. Understand the different types of puns. Familiarize yourself with how words and definitions can be paired to create puns. For example, pairing two words that sound the same but differ in meaning is known as a homographic pun.
  2. Familiarize yourself with the imperfections of the English language. Knowing confusing grammar rules and nonsensical spellings can help you generate puns. Misplaced punctuation and misspelled words can even be part of the humor. This pun, for example, is all about grammar humor: “The past, the present, and the future walk into a bar. It was tense!”
  3. Use free association to link terms with similar meanings together. Let your brain freely make connections between words and other thoughts and feelings. This exercise might help you find a humorous pairing of words.
  4. Increase your vocabulary. Take note of words and phrases that you hear, and think about what makes them humorous. Building your vocabulary can help you to create connections between words.
  5. Utilize a rhyming dictionary. A rhyming dictionary can be a helpful tool for discovering words for puns. If you have a word or phrase in mind for a pun, you can find other words to complete it.

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