What Is a Pun? | Definition, Types & Examples

Rhetoric updated on  May 27, 2024 5 min read
A pun is a literary device that relies on wordplay to make audience members or readers laugh. Puns are typically based on words that sound similar but have different meanings (homonyms), such as “too tired” and “two-tired.”

Pun examples
Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.
I used to be a banker, but I lost interest.
I wondered why the ball was getting bigger. Then it hit me!

Puns are a staple of comedy, but you may also encounter them in literary works, like theatrical plays, novels, and poems. Use QuillBot's paraphraser to find your creative voice.


What is a pun?

A pun (also known as paronomasia) is a type of joke that experiments with the different meanings of a word or with words that sound similar. Although puns are generally used in a humorous way, they can also be used to indicate linguistic dexterity (as in riddles) or to create irony.

Puns often make a text more engaging and memorable because they cause the reader or audience to stop momentarily and think about the true meaning of a phrase. However, not everyone agrees that puns are clever or funny. Terms like “dad joke" and “groaner" are sometimes used to negatively refer to jokes or puns that are predictable.

Nevertheless, puns are frequently used in pop culture. For example, they are often used in movie titles (e.g., Bee Movie) and fictional character names (e.g., the lawyer “Bob Loblaw” in Arrested Development).


4 types of puns

There are four main types of puns:

Homophonic pun

A homophonic pun is based on words that are pronounced the same but differ in meaning and spelling (e.g., “ate” and “eight” or “male” and “mail”).

Homophonic pun example
Yesterday, I accidentally swallowed some food coloring. The doctor says I’m okay, but I feel like I’ve dyed (died) a little inside.


Homographic pun

Homographic puns involve two words that are spelled the same but have different meanings and/or pronunciations, like “object” (thing) and “object” (argue). These puns rely on sight and are therefore mostly used in writing.

Homographic pun example
“You can tune a guitar, but you can't tuna fish. Unless of course, you play bass.”

In this quote by Douglas Adams, there is a homophonic pun (“tune a”/“tuna”) and a homographic pun involving bass (the guitar, which is pronounced “base”) and bass (the fish).

Homonymic pun

A homonymic pun refers to wordplay that relies on words that are spelled and pronounced the same, but differ in meaning. For example, “ring” can refer to either a circle or to the act of calling someone’s phone.

Homonymic pun example
Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.

Compound pun

Compound puns are complex puns that combine two or more homonymic, homographic, or homophonic puns in one statement.

Compound pun example
One hundred hares have escaped from the zoo, so police are combing the area.

Pun examples

Writers often use puns in literary works to play with a word’s multiple meanings and to add depth to the text.

Pun example in William Shakespeare’s Richard III
“Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this sun of York; And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”

In the opening lines from William Shakespeare’s Richard III, the titular character gives a speech commenting on the change from war to peace that his brother, King Edward IV brought about. Here the word “sun” is a pun: it refers to Edward’s banner which depicts a sun, and it also alludes to the fact that he is a member (son) of the House of York.

Puns can also be used to highlight or foreshadow themes in a text.

Pun example in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest
The title of Oscar Wilde’s play is a pun that relies on the homophonic relationship between the name “Ernest” and the word “earnest,” meaning sincere.

On the one hand, the title emphasizes the quality of being “earnest” or sincere, which is highly valued in the society the play takes place in. On the other hand, as the play progresses, characters adopt the name “Ernest” as a pseudonym or alter-ego, leading to an ironic juxtaposition between the importance of being “earnest” and the characters’ deceitful behavior.

Ultimately, the title encapsulates the main theme of the play, which is social pretense, and serves to satirize the shallowness of the society depicted.

In pop culture, puns are not only used as clever one-liners; they can also take the form of running jokes.

Pun example in pop culture
In the animated sitcom Bob’s Burgers, there is a “Burger of the Day” featured on the chalkboard at Bob’s restaurant in (almost) every episode. The names of these special burgers usually involve some kind of pun, like “Texas Chainsaw Massa-Curd Burger” (a reference to the movie The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) or “The Final Kraut Down Burger” (after the song “The Final Countdown” by the band Europe).

Pun jokes

Pun jokes are a form of humor that relies on wordplay (e.g., similar-sounding words or words with a double meaning).

Pun jokes examples
“What's black and white and red all over?” “A newspaper.”
Never discuss infinity with a mathematician. They can go on about it forever.
It was an emotional wedding. Even the cake was in tiers.
A pessimist’s blood type is always B-negative.

Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, rhetorical devices, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Common mistakes

Commonly confused words

Rhetoric

Whoa or woah

Advisor vs adviser

Metonymy

Theirs or their's

Accept vs except

Synecdoche

Ours or our's

Affect vs effect

Verbal irony

Forty or fourty

Among vs between

Irony

Sence or sense

Anymore vs any more

Grawlix


Frequently asked questions about puns

What is wordplay in English?

Wordplay is the manipulation of language, especially in an amusing or clever way. This playful use of words typically involves the sounds and/or meanings of words. 

For example, a pun is a type of wordplay that relies on similar-sounding words with different meanings (homonyms), as in the phrase “I used to be a baker, but I couldn't make enough dough.”

What is the difference between a double entendre and a pun?

Double entendres and puns are both figures of speech that involve ambiguity and double meanings. However, they are not exactly the same.

A double entendre uses a word that seems innocuous at the surface level but also carries a second meaning that would be too inappropriate or sexually suggestive to state directly.

On the other hand, a pun also exploits two possible interpretations of a word, but it is usually in a clever or humorous way, without any suggestive meaning.

In short, a double entendre may use a pun. However, not all puns are considered double entendres.

What does no pun intended mean?

No pun intended is something you say after you have accidentally made a pun. This is to clarify that even though the statement may sound like it contains wordplay, you did not mean it in that way (e.g., “The rapidly melting ice in the Arctic is just the tip of the iceberg. No pun intended”).

However, people often use this phrase in an ironic way (i.e., to call attention to a pun they have just made).

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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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