Play on Words | Examples, Meaning & Definition

Rhetoric updated on  January 22, 2024 4 min read

Play on words is the clever manipulation of language based on the sound and meanings of words. It is a form of verbal wit intended to amuse or surprise an audience. Due to this, we often encounter it in literature, advertising, and everyday conversations.

Play on words example: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
“You see the earth takes twenty-four hours to turn round on its axis-”
“Talking of axes,” said the Duchess, “chop off her head!”

What is a play on words?

A play on words (or wordplay) is a literary technique in which a writer takes advantage of the ambiguities and sounds of words to produce new and surprising meanings. This clever use of language shows the speaker or writer’s skill, grabs the audience’s attention, and often has a humorous effect.

In the example above, for instance, play on words involves two similar-sounding words or homophones (“axis” and “axes”) with entirely different meanings. Here, the unexpected turn of phrase helps maintain the surreal and whimsical tone of the narrative.

It is important to note that play on words is purposeful. Slips of the tongue or unintended word combinations are not instances of wordplay unless the other person takes them up with a playful intention. For example, a character in a literary work may be unaware of the playful nature of what they are saying, but the author is clearly playing on words and the audience is aware of that.

Play on words examples

Play on words involves different literary devices. Below are a few common ones.

Pun

A pun usually relies on words with similar sounds but different meanings (such as “flower” and “flour”) or words that are spelled the same but differ in meaning and/or pronunciation (“bat” can signify the animal or a wooden club). Many play on word jokes involve puns.

Play on words example: Pun
I used to be a baker because I kneaded (needed) dough.

“Kneaded” and “needed” sound the same but have different meanings. “Dough” also has a double meaning. If taken literally, it means “baking mixture.” But it can also mean “money.”

Double entendre

A double entendre is a phrase that can be interpreted in two ways. One of the meanings is usually sexually suggestive or too socially awkward to express openly. Double entendres allow writers to indirectly say something inappropriate.

Play on words example: Double entendre
A common conversational example of double entendre is “You look really hot,” which can be interpreted as referring to someone's attractiveness or to the fact that they are sweating.

Portmanteau

A portmanteau (or blend) combines two words into a new one with a distinct meaning. Portmanteaus are often used to describe emerging phenomena and trends.

Play on words example: Portmanteau
To all outward appearances, they seem to get along, but they are more like frenemies (“friends” + “enemies”), harboring subtle competitiveness.

Palindrome

A palindrome is a word, sentence, or number that can be read in both directions without a change in meaning. Palindromes are usually character-based. For example, the letters in the word “kayak” can be read forward and backward. However, there are also word-based palindromes that reverse word for word, such as “So patient a doctor, to doctor a patient so.”

Play on words example: Palindrome
The phrase “never odd or even” is a palindrome because it maintains its symmetry if read backwards.

Malapropism

Malapropism occurs when a word is mixed up with a similar-sounding one that has a completely different meaning. This results in funny or absurd statements.

Play on words examples: Malapropism
A rolling stone gathers no moths (moss).
She remembers everything; she must have photogenic (photographic) memory.
None of this happened; it’s all a pigment (figment) of your imagination.

Oxymoron

Oxymoron involves placing two words with contradictory or opposing meanings side by side, like “alone together.” This often results in new and complex meanings.

Play on words example: Oxymoron
The phrase “virtual reality” is considered an oxymoron because it combines two seemingly incongruous words. “Virtual” implies that something is simulated or computer-generated (i.e., not existing in the physical sense), whereas “reality” is the state of things as they actually exist. The oxymoron accurately reflects the contradictory nature of the experience: an immersive, computer-generated environment that the user perceives as real.

Paraprosdokian

Paraprosdokian occurs when the latter part of a sentence takes a surprising turn, causing us to reinterpret the entire phrase. This shift in meaning is often used in satire and comedy.

Play on words example: Paraprosdokian
Where there is a will, I want to be in it.
Some people hear voices. Some see invisible people. Others have no imagination whatsoever.
Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

Do you want to know more about commas, parts of speech, email, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


US vs UK

Parts of speech

Other

Offence vs offense

Participial phrase

At your earliest convenience

Humor or humour

Superlative adjective

Yours truly

Realise or realize

Comparative adjective

Sincerely yours

Learnt or learned

Nouns

Class act

Cancelled or canceled

Pronouns

Devil’s advocate


Frequently asked questions about play on words

What is the purpose of play on words?

Play on words is used for several purposes depending on the context, such as:

  • entertaining or amusing an audience with the clever arrangement of words, letters, or sounds.
  • making language more interesting, original, and witty by using words creatively.
  • allowing writers to draw attention to certain aspects of their work, be it characters or plot points.

What is an example of play on words?

An example of play on words is the phrase “I used to be a banker, but I lost interest.” It relies on the double meaning of the word “interest,” which could signify either profits or appeal.

What is a famous play on words example in literature?

A famous play on words example in literature is the phrase “ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man” spoken by Mercutio in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Act 3 Scene 1).

Here, “grave” has a double meaning, namely “serious” and “burial place.” The fatally wounded Mercutio suggests that they will find him to be a man in his grave.

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Kassiani

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.

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