A Short Introduction to the Pun

The pun is a figure of speech that uses both the sound and the sense of words to create ambiguity -- more than one meaning, interpretation, sense (polysemous). A pun need not be humorous.

Sound, sense and ambiguity are the three criteria. For example: She was only a whiskey maker's daughter, but he loved her still. Because the adverbial form (meaning "anyway") and nounal form (meaning "distillation apparatus") of still sound identical the word is ambiguous; the sense is unclear. Further, the entire statement is ambiguous: It can mean "She was only a whiskey maker's daughter, but he loved her anyway" and "She was only a whiskey maker's daughter, but he loved her distillation apparatus."

However, the term pun has been applied broadly to also include word play that exploits only sound or only sense without creating ambiguity. We cannot ignore the historical usage. Therefore, the term needs to be defined so as to include all usages and to differentiate among types. The following classification pretty much covers all types of puns:

A. Unambiguous pun: word play involving sound or sense without ambiguity

B. Ambiguous pun: figure of speech involving sound and sense that results in ambiguity


A. The unambiguous pun is word play that exploits the sound or sense of words in order to create a (usually) humorous effect without creating ambiguity. In the past other terms such as jingle and quibble were sometimes used for this type of pun. This is the type of pun most people are familiar with and the type most disparaged.

B. An ambiguous pun is a figure of speech that exploits the fact that words sound similar but have different meanings in order to create ambiguity (which may be only momentary). Like all figures of speech the ambiguous pun seeks to achieve an effect, such as humor or irony, that goes beyond simply calling attention to itself.

Many people believe that there is only one kind of pun and, if it's well-constructed, it makes us smile or laugh, but the unambiguous sound-pun and the ambiguous, inclusive, statement-pun are as different as the limerick and the sonnet.

For a longer analysis of the pun see A Modest Defense of the Pun.


1Henry J. Byron, Miss Eily O'Connor (London: Thomas Hailes Lacy, nd), 6.

2Thomas Hood, "Please to Ring the Belle," Whims and Oddities 3rd ed. (London: Lupton Relfe, 1828), 13).