What Is a Pun? | Definition, Examples & Types

A pun is a form of wordplay that uses terms with similar or identical sounds or spellings for humorous effect. Puns can also underscore irony, contribute to character development, or highlight absurdity.

Pun examples
Never trust an atom; they make up everything.

I told a chemistry joke, but there was no reaction.

I became well red by reading in the sun.

Puns are a common form of wordplay in comedy, literature, film, and everyday life.

What is a pun?

A pun is a type of wordplay that exploits words with multiple definitions or similar sounds to create humor or suggest various layers of interpretation.

Puns often involve polysemy: the phenomenon where a single word has more than one meaning (e.g., “bank,” “light,” “bat”). However, puns can also involve homophones, words with similar or identical sounds that are spelled differently (e.g., “pair” and “pear”).

In linguistics, relevance theory explains how communication often involves interpreting words beyond their literal meanings to grasp implied or secondary meanings. Puns are a prime illustration, as they require understanding multiple meanings of the same words for humorous or rhetorical effect.

Puns are sometimes seen as a low form of humor, so they are often accompanied by an apology (e.g., “if you’ll excuse the pun”) or an ironic claim that the pun is unintentional (e.g., “no pun intended”). Particularly cliché or predictable puns are often referred to as “dad jokes” or “groaners” (e.g., “I’m on a seafood diet; I see food and I eat it”).

Puns are closely related to several other rhetorical concepts:

  • Wordplay: A broad term encompassing various clever or amusing uses of words (e.g., puns, alliteration, anagrams)
  • Paronomasia: A device that exploits phonetic similarities between words, sometimes (but not always) resulting in puns
  • Double entendre (French for “double meaning”): A term typically reserved for a pun that carries a risqué or suggestive connotation

4 types of puns

There are four main types of puns:

Homographic pun

Homographic puns are based on homographs: words with identical spellings but different meanings—and often different pronunciations. “Homograph” is derived from the Greek for “same write.”

The word “wind” (to twist) is a homograph of the word “wind” (moving air). Homographic puns are typically presented in written form if they involve words with different pronunciations.

Homographic pun example
I don’t know how to polish shoes; I’m not from Poland.

Homonymic pun

Homonymic puns use homonyms: different words that are identical in both spelling and sound. “Homonym” is derived from the Greek for “same name.”

The words “bark” (the sound a dog makes) and “bark” (the outer covering of a tree) are homonyms.

Homonymic pun example
I made a joke during the Zoom meeting, but it wasn’t remotely funny.

Homophonic pun

Homophonic puns rely on homophones: words that sound the same but have different meanings—and typically different spellings. “Homophone” is derived from the Greek for “same sound.”

The words “peace” and “piece” are homophones.

Homophonic pun example
I used to work at a belt factory, but it was such a waist of time.

Compound pun

Compound puns are a form of wordplay that incorporates multiple puns. A compound pun can include any combination of homophonic puns, homographic puns, and homonymic puns. The inclusion of multiple puns can enhance a joke’s complexity and humor.

Compound pun example
I couldn’t make enough dough as a baker, so I decided to rise to the occasion and make more bread as a banker.

Pun examples

Puns are ubiquitous in Shakespeare’s plays, often appearing even in tragic contexts to serve as comedic relief. Shakespeare’s use of wordplay often engages the audience both cognitively and emotionally.

Pun example from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. (Act 3, Scene 1)

In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio foreshadows his impending death with a pun using the word “grave,” which as an adjective means “serious” and as a noun refers to a burial site. Mercutio’s humorous response to his own fatal injury highlights his wit and resilience. Shakespeare’s puns often involve morbid or risqué themes, engaging multiple emotions at once through multiple layers of meaning.

Lewis Carroll is another author whose writing is known for its rich and entertaining wordplay, including puns. Carroll’s use of wordplay typically highlights the absurdity of a scene for entertainment purposes and sometimes for satirical effect.

Pun example from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
“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?”

This pun from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is typical of the playful language of Carroll’s writing, which invites readers to engage with the text’s dual meanings. The novel’s themes of ambiguity and confusion contribute to the nonsensical and paradoxical nature of the world Alice navigates.

Puns are used in pop culture mediums such as sitcoms, movies, and cartoons, often to portray a character’s naivety in a humorous or endearing manner. In many contexts, puns employ situational irony, with the humor arising from a discrepancy between the speaker’s understanding and the audience’s interpretation, typically making the speaker the butt of the joke.

Pun example from South Park
Casino Owner: I am afraid minors cannot go onto the casino floor.

Cartman: I’m not a miner, [expletive]. Do you see a shovel in my hand?

South Park often uses puns to juxtapose the innocence or simplemindedness of a speaker with surprisingly mature themes. In this example, Cartman’s childlike misunderstanding of the term “minor” combined with his use of foul language adds to the absurdity of the character and the humor of the scene.

Pun jokes

Puns are used in jokes because people often find it gratifying to decipher a surprise double meaning. Below are some examples of pun jokes.

Pun joke examples
Did you hear about the mathematician who’s afraid of negative numbers? He’ll stop at nothing to avoid them.

My boss asked if I’m good with PowerPoint. I said I Excel at it.

Want to hear a construction joke? Sorry, I’m still working on it.

What do you call a bear with no teeth? A gummy bear.

I told my friend 10 jokes to make him laugh. Sadly, no pun in 10 did.

Frequently asked questions about puns

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

Puns and double entendres both involve double meanings, but there is a key difference:

  • A pun is any play on words that involves multiple meanings of the same word or phrase.
  • A double entendre is a specific type of pun that has a slightly indecent (typically sexual) connotation.
What is the difference between a malapropism and a pun?

Malapropisms and puns are similar, but they have key differences:

  • Malapropisms are usually unintentional on the part of the speaker or character. They typically don’t aim to highlight double meanings.
  • Puns are typically used deliberately. They rely on multiple meanings of the same word (or similar-sounding words) to achieve a double entendre.
What does no pun intended mean?

No pun intended” is a common expression used to highlight a pun while ostensibly claiming that the pun was unintentional. This phrase is often used humorously to call attention to a pun that the speaker recognizes is cliché and likely to elicit a groan. However, in some cases the phrase is used sincerely, indicating that the speaker did not notice the pun until after it was spoken.

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Magedah Shabo

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