A pun is a literary device that’s defined as a play on words.
Writers twist words and combine them together in interesting ways in order to make puns. Puns depend on similar or identical sounds with different meanings. It’s critical that the words used in puns have different meanings in order to get the writer’s point across in an interesting way.
Definition and Explanation of Pun
While most puns are humorous and are meant to make someone laugh, or at least roll their eyes, some can be used more seriously. Many puns use what is known as a homophone, or one word that sounds like another but has a different, sometimes related meaning. Writers who use puns want readers to think about their texts differently. They allow someone to reconsider the meaning of the word as they initially read it and look at it through another lens.
Common Examples of Puns
- Some bunny loves you.
- This vacuum sucks.
- The wedding cake had me in tiers.
- The population of Ireland is always Dublin.
- Make like a tree and leave.
Examples of Puns in Literature
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare is well-known for his puns. In Romeo and Juliet, perhaps his best-known tragedy, he uses a pun while Mercutio and Romeo are talking about wounds and the former’s death. Here are a few of Mercutio’s lines:
No, ’tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door, but ’tis enough, ’twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I am peppered, I warrant, for this world. A plague o’ both your houses! Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat to scratch a man to death!
There is a very interesting line approximately half-way through this passage. It reads: “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.” With this line, Shakespeare is playing on the two meanings of the word “grave.” It is tragic and ironic in these circumstances. Mercutio has been stabbed by Tybalt and as he’s dying, he refers to him as a “grave man,” or someone who is soon going to end up in his grave. He is both serious and solemn, (the meaning of “grave” when it is used as an adjective) and nearing death and his final resting place (with “grave” being used as a noun).
There is another good example in Romeo and Juliet in Act I Scene 4. Romeo says the following line to Mercutio:
Give me a torch. I am not for this ambling.
Being but heavy, I will bear the light.
He’s saying to his friend that he doesn’t feel like dancing, he’ll instead carry the light. He’s feeling “heavy,” or sad, rather than “light” or happy.
Read the poetry of William Shakespeare.
Two Gentlemen in Verona by William Shakespeare
There are several good examples of puns in Two Gentlemen in Verona. In one specific passage, he has two characters, Launce and Panthino, play with the meanings of “tide” and “tied.” Here is an excerpt:
Away, ass! You’ll lose the tide if you tarry any longer.
It is no matter if the tied were lost; for it is the unkindest tied that ever any man tied.
What’s the unkindest tide?
Why, he that’s tied here, Crab, my dog.”
Readers should seek out all the examples of “tied” and “tide” in these short lines and determine which word the speaker was using, how they used it, and how the other character interpreted it. One of the funniest things a pun can do is cause confusion.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
In Lewis Carroll’s best-known novel, he uses a pun in a passage about “tales” and “tails.” Here are a few lines:
‘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?’ And she kept on puzzling about it while the Mouse was speaking.
In these lines, he uses “tale” and “tail” in different ways as the Mouse describes a story and its own “tail.”
Read more works and poetry by Lewis Caroll.
A Pun or a Joke?
Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between a pun and a joke. The latter are narrative in nature and have structures that are meant to make people laugh. Jokes have a setup and a punchline that relieves the tension created in the narrative. Puns the other hand depend on wordplay and are a figure of speech. Despite their differences, puns and jokes are both forms of humor and require a quick mind and clever thinking to devise.
Why Do Writers Use Puns?
Writers use puns in order to create clever, interesting, and entertaining turns of phrase. These passages, such as those mentioned above, should entertain the reader while challenging them to think about the words in a different way. The examples from Romeo and Juliet are more serious while the example from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is more comedic. The confusion created by using puns such as in Alice, is the most common way the literary device is used. Readers should expect most puns to be funny.
Related Literary Terms
- Aphorism: short, serious, humorous, and philosophical truths about life.
- Black Humor: a literary device that’s used in all forms of literature in order to discuss taboo subjects in a less distressing way.
- Comedy: a humorous and entertaining genre of literature, film, and television.
- Satire/Satirical Comedy: used to analyze behaviors to make fun of, criticize, or chastise them in a humorous way.