A pun is a type of word play that creates a secondary meaning to a phrase by using words that sound or look alike, or have multiple meanings. There are many different types of puns, including homographic, homophonic, and the Tom Swifty. While punning is often done for humor, it can also be used to create more serious wordplay that trades on double meanings.
The homographic pun plays on words that have more than one meaning, despite being spelled identically. In a punning word that is homographic, for example, the word “littering,” both senses of the word should applicable to the pun. For instance, the sentence “ A dog having puppies on the sidewalk is considered to be littering,” is a true homographic pun, since the dog is “littering” by giving birth to puppies, and also “littering” by placing inappropriate items on the sidewalk. Though not all puns incorporate both meanings, the pun is often considered ideal if both versions can apply.
Homophonic puns can be easier to construct, since they rely on words that simply sound alike, rather than a single word with multiple meanings. Some good examples of homophones might include rain/rein/reign, bread/bred, and their/there/they're. Ideally, homophonic puns are constructed to take advantage of the meanings of both terms; for example, the sentence, “Joey is crying because he got hit by a bawl/ball,” can mean both that Joey was struck by a ball, or that he was overcome by a need to cry. Some homophones may ignore the finer points of word construction in order to get the point across. In a pun such as “Margo complimented the vase because she was told it needed to be appraised/a-praised,” the term “a-praised” is not actually a correct word, but serves the purpose of the punner well enough.
A Tom Swifty is a type of pun that plays on the relationship of adverbs to verbs. To create a Tom Swifty, an adverb that refers to some part of the preceding line of dialogue is added to the end of a sentence. For example, “'I really like beagles,' Tom said doggedly,” uses the term “doggedly” as a pun on the word “beagle.” Tom Swifty puns are often found in humorous literature, and are nearly sure to elicit a groan from any astute reader.
Humorous puns are generally constructed to amuse the punner and his audience by playing with vocabulary and context. They are frequently found in stand-up comedy, comedic films, and comedic stories and books. Funny punning games are also a common tool for teachers, who hope to instill an appreciation of reading and vocabulary in young readers by teaching them to play with words.
While serious literary puns may take a deep understanding of context, hunting them down in great literary works can be a fascinating task for the committed punner. One of the most famous serious puns is found in the opening line of William Shakespeare's play, Richard III. The line, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York,” contains a homophonic pun on the word “son.” In the sentence, the word seems to refer to Edward IV, the son of the Duke of York, whose throne Richard III has just taken. Switching in the homophone “sun,” however, creates a reference both to the sun badge worn by Edward IV, and the “sun” that turns the “winter of our discontent” into a “glorious summer."