What do you call a sandwich made of wordplay? A pun-ini.
The English language abounds with pun examples in literature. From Chaucer to Shakespeare, from the Romantics to contemporary poetry, writers have twisted language to explore new (and often hilarious) possibilities with words.
We generally consider puns to have humorous intent. However, The pun in literature can also be quite serious. So, let’s examine how puns can complement your writing and open new doorways in your work. We’ll take a look at some pun examples in literature and tips for writing puns, as well as reasons to incorporate this literary device in your work.
But first, what is a pun? Let’s define this playful and serious art form. I hope I won’t be punished for every pun-I-shed. All puns intended!
Pun Definition: What is a Pun?
At its simplest definition, a pun is a play on words. By experimenting with the sounds and/or meanings of a word, the author of a pun uses language in a novel, surprising, and often humorous way.
Pun definition: A play on words. By experimenting with the sounds and/or meanings of a word, the author of a pun uses language in a novel, surprising, and often humorous way.
For example, let’s say you owned a talkative feline, and I told you your pet “is a little catty.” This would be a play on words, because I’m using catty to mean “gossipy” on top of the fact that your pet is a cat.
Another word for pun is “paronomasia,” a Greek word translated as “to call something by a slight change of name.” If two wanderers saw a really witty pun, then would a pair of nomads see a paronomasia?
There are three basic categories of puns: those that play with sound, those that play with meaning, and those that play with both. Let’s break each down:
Homophonic Pun Examples
Puns that play with sound use homophones to convey distorted meanings. Here are some common pun examples based on sound:
- Not using conditioner is a hair-brained idea. (Instead of hare-brained)
- Atheism is a non-prophet organization. —George Carlin (Instead of non-profit)
- The motorbike was two-tired to stand on its own. (Instead of too tired)
- The egotistical shrimp was a little shellfish. (Instead of selfish)
- “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” —Mark Twain (Instead of The Nile)
Homographic Pun Examples
A homograph is a word that is spelled the same but has a different meaning. For example, a “tear” can be both water from the eye and a rip in fabric. Homographic puns play with the meanings of words, often using one word or phrase to mean two different things. See below:
- I asked the distraught particle physicist “what’s the matter?”
- This gum stick is in mint condition.
- The dying calendar’s days were numbered.
Compound Pun Examples
Lastly, a pun can use both homophones and homographs at the same time. In the below examples, the compound puns play with both the sounds and meanings of words:
- A short psychic broke out of jail. She was a small medium at large.
- She pulled a mussel at the seafood gymnastics event.
Pun Examples in Literature
While most modern day puns are thought of as “dad jokes,” the pun plays a serious part in classic and contemporary literature. Take a look at these pun examples in literature and you’ll see how authors have toyed with the English language throughout history.
Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare
In Romeo & Juliet, Mercutio—one of Romeo’s closest friends—is killed at the hands of Tybalt, turning the play from a comedy to a tragedy. As he dies, Mercutio says this:
Mercutio’s use of the word “grave” is a pun. To be a grave man means to be utterly serious, but Mercutio means this to say he will be dead—in the grave. Always the comic, Mercutio even uses his own death as joking material.
Richard III by William Shakespeare
In Act 1, Scene 1 of Richard III, Richard, the brother of Edward IV and soon-to-be king, comments on Edward’s banner:
Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”
Here, “sun” is a pun. The banner itself depicts an image of the sun, but also refers to Richard being a member (or son) of the House of York. While the text itself denotes “sun,” audience members of this play will be quick to hear the pun. As in many of Shakespeare’s plays, his puns are better heard rather than read.
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Here’s an excerpt from Alice’s first encounter with the Mouse:
The conversation goes unexpectedly because each character hears a different spelling of the word “tail / tale.” This kind of humorous misunderstanding is also known as a mondegreen.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Pip, the protagonist of Great Expectations, is a small and misunderstood orphan boy, and his remaining family and fellow townsfolk tend to think they know what’s best for him. At one point, Pip remarks this to the reader:
The double usage of “point” is a pun meaning two different things: the point of the conversation points into Pip. In other words, every time the conversation turns on Pip, it seems to cut into him. This rather serious paronomasia evinces both Pip’s precocious mind and the unkind society he grows up under.
“[Of a girl, in white]” by Harryette Mullen
This poem by Harryette Mullen was originally accessed here, at Poetry Foundation.
The word “slip” here is used three times, each time under a slightly different and sometimes ambiguous meaning. The first usage of slip is a pun: the petticoat might be slipping off, and it also might be “giving him the slip” or getting away from him. This ambiguity makes for a surprising difference in interpretation, and such interpretability comes back around when the poet mentions a Freudian slip. This short prose poem masterfully forms a mirror to the reader, asking them to consider how they interpret ambiguous words, and why.
“Money is an Energy” by Justin Marks
Here’s an excerpt from “Money is an Energy” by Justin Marks, accessed from The Academy of American Poets:
I would like to not live
paycheck to paycheck
You could make a pun on currency
but not quite
Rather self-referential, the pun meaning is clear: working paycheck to paycheck requires a constant state of currency—as in, constantly being up-to-date on your current bank balance and available funds. Ironically, “currency” also refers to money, which someone who lives paycheck-to-paycheck has little of.
The Bible actually has quite a few puns, though many of those will be lost on the reader unless they are well-versed in ancient languages and customs. Here’s one of the Bible’s pun examples:
The name Aphrah, sometimes written as Beth-Le-Aphrah, means “house of dust.” So, the sentence here is “in the [house of dust], roll thyself in dust.”
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Another work which has a surprising amount of puns is Nabokov’s Lolita. Here’s one such example:
By abbreviating “population” to “pop.”, this sentence makes a play on words with “soda pop.”
What’s the point of writing puns?
You might be wondering what puns accomplish. They’re mostly humorous twists on language, but why do authors employ these devices in their work? What’s the point of writing puns?
Here are a few reasons why writers play with words:
- To Create Ambiguity. How should a certain word or phrase be interpreted? Sometimes, the vague interpretability of words contributes directly to the author’s meaning, though this ambiguity should be tactful and intentional.
- To Highlight a Word. When Shakespeare creates a pun using sun/son in Richard III, he isn’t just being cheeky—he’s highlighting the sense of entitlement and desire for power that drives Richard’s many actions.
- To Add Irony. Sometimes, a pun is used to add irony to the text. Ironic puns are often situational and based on other elements occurring in the text. However, an ironic pun can also be built off of a contranym—a word that has multiple and opposing definitions, such as the word “clip,” which can mean “to fasten” or to “detach.”
- To be Clever or Humorous. Finally, yes, many puns are used to make the writing clever, humorous, or interesting. By twisting language and its many possible meanings, the writer creates new avenues for the reader to engage with and respond to the writing itself.
Among poetic devices, puns can prove quite controversial. Some writers and theorists disparage the use of pun in literature, as the wordplay can often seem shallow or irrelevant to the text itself.
Certainly, you do not want to overload your writing with paronomasias, or else they will distract or baffle the reader. Additionally, most puns get lost in translation, because the device relies on a specific sound and/or meaning inherent to a certain word in a certain language.
Nonetheless, a pun here and there can add flare and texture to your writing, enhancing the reader’s experience with the text, creating new inroads for interpretation, and making your work more artful and stylish.
Tips for Writing Puns
The hare who wouldn’t stop playing with words was quite a punny rabbit.
As you can see, I love puns. Sure, they’re not the highest of art forms (though Alfred Hitchcock disagrees), but language is fun and interesting and ripe for experimentation. Here’s a few ideas for writing puns in your own work:
1. Play with Rhymes
Try taking a common phrase, changing one of the consonants in that phrase, and then writing about that phrase under the new meaning you’ve given it. For example, instead of the phrase “snug as a bug in a rug,” you might write “smug as a thug in a tug.” Then, give context: make a joke about a murderer getting away on a tugboat, or even write a story around that single pun.
It might seem a little easy to base a story around a pun, but there’s literary history here. Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest, for example, begins with a character named Jack Worthing, a dishonest gentleman. At the end of the play, he becomes trustworthy and also has changed his name to Earnest, so he has learned the importance of “being earnest,” both in the literal sense and the nominative sense.
(No, Oscar Wilde might not have written an entire play to make a single pun, but that doesn’t mean you can’t!)
2. Play with Homophones and Homographs
The English language is filled with homophones and homographs. Many of our words sound the same to each other, and one word can have hundreds of definitions. Experiment with this!
In one of the above pun examples in literature, we mentioned a pun that was also a mondegreen. Homographic and homophonic puns can also take the form of zeugmas, syllepses, paraprosdokians, or other literary devices. Choose a word, find a homophone or homograph, and go wild.
3. Use Free Association
Free association is a writing technique in which you let your mind wander freely about the page. By giving yourself a topic to write on and letting your pen loose, you can come up with connections, or “associations,” that you might not have found if you had written with tight control over your words.
So, pick a word, then let your mind loose. Maybe your mind is a hunter, rifling through a dictionary. Or it’s a pig going ham with language. Or it’s a beast going wild with wordplay.
4. Experiment with Grammar
English grammar, just like the English language in general, gets confusing. Use that to your advantage, and you might develop new and witty puns.
We saw this experimentation with grammar in Lolita. By playing with periods and commas, Nabokov played with the words “soda pop” by describing the town of “Soda, pop. 1001.” In your own writing, making use of grammar and punctuation can certainly produce novel, exciting possibilities in language.
5. Be Referential
Puns make for witty, interesting references, so long as you write them the right way. For example, most people are familiar with the novel War & Peace, which makes the monaker “Warren Peace” (for musician Geoffrey Alexander MacCormack) incredibly funny.
But, one of the trickiest aspects in writing puns is the use of references. For example, I might tell you that I “thoroughly enjoyed reading Civil Disobedience” but if you don’t know that that book was written by Thoreau (rhymes with thorough), you won’t see the joke. Or, if there’s a learning and confidence curve to writing puns, I might say it abides by the “Punning Krueger effect”—but you would need to know about the Dunning-Krueger effect first.
Punny references should be tactful and universal to your audience. But, when the pun lands right, it will thoroughly amuse and delight the reader.
Master the Pun at Writers.com
Okay, okay, I’ve got one more for you. If you spend your entire literary career exploring new lands in paronomasia, does that make you Juan Punce de Leon?
That was bad, I know. I’m quite the pun of a gun. So if you want to do better than me, take a look at our upcoming creative writing courses, where you’ll learn the craft of creative writing from one of our award winning instructors. Along the way, experiment with your puns and chart new terrain in the possibilities of language. We hope to write with you soon!
Edwin Newman (Strictly Speaking, A Civil Tongue) also had a healthy love of puns. He thought of them as niceties of the language. In one of those two books, he has a whole chapter of puns!
Thanks for this, Annamarie! I’ll have to check those books out. 🙂
I really enjoy reading the articles you write for this site. You do thorough research and the information is delivered in such a clear and entertaining manner. I do hope you continue to contribute these articles. I don’t write poetry, but I do enjoy your insights on the art form. Clearly, you spend a good deal of time and thought on each article you write. It is appreciated.
This warms my heart! I’m so happy to hear you enjoy these articles, Rebecca, your kind words are deeply appreciated.
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