Play on Words | Examples & Meaning

A play on words, often referred to as wordplay, is an expression that manipulates the meanings, sounds, spellings, or arrangement of words to achieve humor, irony, or layers of meaning. The term is sometimes used as a synonym for “pun,” but it can encompass various other devices that use language in clever, innovative ways.

Play on words example
Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.

Examples of plays on words can be found in media, literature, marketing, and everyday conversations. These wordplay examples include puns, double entendres, portmanteaus, palindromes, malapropisms, oxymorons, and paraprosdokians.

What is a play on words?

A play on words (or wordplay) uses language in a creative or humorous way, typically by exploiting multiple meanings or similar sounds of words. This form of language manipulation is often used to engage and amuse the audience.

While “play on words” is often used synonymously with “pun,” several other devices can be included in the definition.

Wordplay typically involves semantic manipulation, focusing on the meanings of words (e.g., puns, malapropisms). However, wordplay is sometimes defined more broadly to include syntactic manipulation, which involves the arrangement of words in a sentence (e.g., some palindromes).

The primary aim of wordplay is to amuse and engage the audience, but wordplay can also add depth, artistic value, and complexity to a text. In marketing and advertising, well-chosen wordplay can make a message more memorable and persuasive.

Play on words examples

Play on words is an umbrella term that can include many rhetorical devices associated with wit, cleverness, or humor derived from the meanings or order of words, including the examples that follow.

Pun

A pun is a play on words that uses terms that share sounds or spellings but have different meanings. This form of verbal wit often creates humor by highlighting the multiple meanings of a single word.

For example, a pun might involve homophones like “hair” and “hare” or homographs like “tire” (to become weary) and “tire” (the rubber covering for a wheel).

Play on words example: Pun
“We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

This saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin humorously juxtaposes the phrases “hang together,” implying unity, and “hang separately,” implying execution.

Paraprosdokian

A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is unexpected and often humorous, causing the reader to reinterpret the first part. This form of wordplay is commonly used in satire and comedy.

Play on words example: Paraprosdokian
I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but I’m afraid this wasn’t it.

I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather, not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.

War does not determine who is right—only who is left.

Double entendre

Double entendres have a straightforward meaning and a secondary, usually suggestive or provocative, meaning. They are typically puns that have a risqué secondary meaning. This type of wordplay is often used to add a layer of subtlety or humor.

Play on words example: Double entendre
If you want a boxer, I will step into the ring for you.

And if you want a doctor, I’ll examine every inch of you.

In Leonard Cohen’s song “I’m Your Man,” the phrase “I’ll examine every inch of you” is a double entendre hinting at something more intimate than a physical at a doctor’s office.

Malapropism

A malapropism is the use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, often with humorous results. This form of language manipulation can create amusing misunderstandings. When intentional, a malapropism can be considered a play on words.

Play on words examples: Malapropism
“I don’t deny it, I was most putrified with astonishment when you give me that smack.”

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck often misunderstands words used by the adults around him. In narrating a conversation between Aunt Sally and Sid Sawyer, he means to say “petrified” (meaning afraid) but instead says “putrefied” (meaning decomposed and foul-smelling). This malapropism humorously highlights Huck’s naivety.

Oxymoron

An oxymoron is a figure of speech that combines contradictory terms, creating a paradoxical effect that can be used to add humor or complexity to language. This type of wordplay often goes unnoticed as oxymoronic expressions such as “jumbo shrimp” and “deafening silence” enter the common vernacular.

Play on words example: Oxymoron
awfully good

controlled chaos

living dead

open secret

Palindrome

A palindrome is a word, phrase, sentence, or number that contains exactly the same sequence of characters or words whether read from left to right or from right to left.

Palindromes that use words as a unit rather than characters (e.g., “King, are you glad you are king?”) can fit the broad definition of a play on words. This form of wordplay often surprises and amuses readers.

Play on words example: Palindrome
The sentence “Was it a car or a cat I saw?” is an example of a palindrome.

Portmanteau

A portmanteau blends parts of two or more words to create a new term with a combined meaning. This form of wordplay often results in creative and humorous new words.

Play on words example: Portmanteau
adpocalypse [advertiser + apocalypse]

dramageddon [drama + Armageddon]

Bennifer [Ben Affleck + Jennifer Lopez]

mansplaining [man + explaining]

mockumentary [mock + documentary]

Sharknado [shark + tornado]

Frequently asked questions about play on words

What is the purpose of a play on words?

A play on words can serve several purposes in written and spoken communication.

Purposes of wordplay include:

  • humor
  • irony
  • subtlety
  • emphasis
  • creativity
  • engagement
  • persuasion
What is an example of play on words?

An example of a play on words is the joke “He had a photographic memory but never developed it.” The word “developed” can refer to developing skills or developing photographs.

This particular form of wordplay is called a pun, creating humor using words or phrases with multiple meanings.

What is a famous play on words example in literature?

A famous literary play on words can be found in William Shakespeare’s Richard III:

“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.”

This line blends metaphor with wordplay, using a pun on “son” and “sun” to depict Richard, son of the House of York, as the force that ends winter’s troubles.

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Shabo, M. (2024, May 26). Play on Words | Examples & Meaning. Scribbr. Retrieved July 17, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/rhetoric/play-on-words/

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Magedah Shabo

Magedah is an author, editor, and educator who has empowered thousands of students to become better writers.