Pun in Literature: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Figure of Speech
  • 0:56 The Use of the Pun
  • 4:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Social Studies, and Science for seven years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

In this lesson, we'll briefly review figurative language. Furthermore, we'll look closer at one type of figurative language: the pun. You'll be able to analyze some examples of the pun and see why it's used.

Figure of Speech

Think back to your childhood. Do you ever remember a time when your parents said something like, ''We have an hour to kill before we have to go home'' or ''Look outside, it's raining cats and dogs!'' Did you ever think that your mom was really going to make sixty minutes die, or that there were actually household pets falling from the sky? If you did, then you were thinking in literal terms and probably didn't understand figures of speech.

A figure of speech occurs when a person says one thing in terms of something else. For example, cats and dogs aren't really falling from the sky; what your parent meant was that there's a hard rain outside. One type of figure of speech is the pun. In simple terms, a pun, also known as a paronomasia, is just a play on words. Puns rely on words that have more than one meaning or that sound like other words.

The Use of the Pun

Puns can be a fun and witty way to make a piece of literature more light-hearted. They serve to clarify a situation and make the reader think about it in a different way, usually while providing a quick laugh. Look at the following poem 'Pragmatist' by Edmund Conti:

Apocalypse now
Coming our way
Ground zero at noon
Halve a nice day.

In this example, Conti plays on the words 'have' and 'halve' since they sound so similar. In the context on the poem, you can see why the pun works. The title, 'Pragmatist,' is a dead giveaway for the purpose of the pun. A pragmatist is a realist who knows that if an apocalypse truly occurred, the reader would likely not be having a nice day. This is, of course, a very gruesome topic for a poem, but the pun gives the reader a much more light-hearted feeling, making the reader both grimace and chuckle at the same time.

Many authors use puns through words with more than one meaning. A great example of this occurs in one of Shakespeare's sonnets. Look at the first two lines:

Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,
And Will to boot, and Will in overplus;

What's odd in the grammar of those lines? Did you notice the capitalization of the word will? If you did, you should see that since words are usually not capitalized in the middle of a sentence or line, it must be a name. Will is, of course, a common name, and it's also Shakespeare's first name. In this sonnet, he's making a pun of his own name. Look at another pair of lines from the same sonnet:

So thou being rich in Will add to thy Will
One Will of mine to make thy large Will more.

Shakespeare continues the pun on his name through the many definitions of the word 'will.' 'Will' can mean the desire to do something, or it can be the paper that distributes wealth after death, or it's just a person's first name. In this sonnet, Shakespeare does a great job of using a pun to try to get his lady to be with him.

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