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Playing with Words: Understanding Puns and Jokes November 2nd, 2015

“Reading while sunbathing makes you well red.”

“Santa’s helpers are known as subordinate Clauses.”

“The English teacher was very logical. He had a lot of comma sense.”

What do all of these sentences have in common? They are puns—a special kind of language joke that relies on the fact that some words have more than one meaning while other words that sound alike have different meanings. Puns can be found everywhere: in books, movie dialogue, and in advertising slogans in magazines and on billboards. When you are able to use puns and to recognize them when you read or hear them, you should congratulate yourself! It means you are really learning all the different usages and surprises of the English language.

Here’s a guide to some of the more common types of puns, according to the official American English website run by the U.S. State Department (http://americanenglish.state.gov/):

Soundalike puns:

Also known as homophones, they are words that sound alike but have different meanings. In the pun “Reading while sunbathing makes you well red,” the homophone pun comes from the word red. When it’s spelled R-E-D, it means the color. In the joke, it’s referring specifically to the color your skin can turn if you sunbathe for too long. When the word is spelled R-E-A-D, it’s the past tense version of reading; in fact, to refer to someone as well-read means that they have read a wide variety of different books. Hence, if you are both reading and sunbathing at the same time, you might be well-read and also be turning red. It’s definitely not the funniest of jokes, but it relies on knowing both versions of the word, as a native speaker would!

Lookalike puns:

These are based on words that have more than one meaning. In the pun, “Santa’s helpers are known as subordinate Clauses,” the lookalike pun is found within the phrase “subordinate clause,” which is a specific grammar term (bonus points if you learned about subordinate clauses at ELC!). However, the word subordinate also means lower-ranking. The word Clauses is capitalized in our pun because that is part of the name of the character of Santa Claus. Since helpers of Santa would be in a lower-ranking position at the North Pole toy workshop than he is (since he’s the boss), they are subordinate Clauses.

Close-sounding puns:

Close-sounding puns use words that aren’t spelled the same or even sound the same. The joke is that they sound enough alike that the listener (or reader) understands the connection. In the pun, “The English teacher was very logical. He had a lot of comma sense,” the pun is with the word “comma.” When we say that someone has common sense, we mean that they are very logical and sensible. A comma is, of course, a very important piece of punctuation, and an English teacher would know that. So the pun relies on the English teacher’s job and the fact that common and comma sound very much alike.

Now that you know more about puns, can you spot the one from the image in our previous article about Banned Books Week? What kind of pun do you think it is: soundalike, lookalike, or close-sounding? What other puns have you seen or heard recently?

Energizer bunny

What do you call a person who has lots of energy for wordplay?

An energizer punny!!