Some month ago I glanced at puns in my series about humor in writing. But as much as I love them, it is difficult to come up with an original pun. This is not primarily a foreign language thing even though it adds to it.
There are different levels of puns
- Puerile puns
- Everyday puns
- Sophisticated puns
- Top class puns
Let's dissect the topic a little by looking at some examples from the internet:
- Always trust a glue salesman. They tend to stick to their word.
- Where do you find giant snails? On the ends of giants’ fingers.
- What do you call an alligator in a vest? An investigator!
Those are, what I call it, puerile puns. Their wit is based on simple everyday facts. At a certain age, children love these puns. However, as grown-ups they seemed to be a little silly.
- Two antennas met on a roof, fell in love and got married. The ceremony wasn't much, but the reception was brilliant!
- When a woman returns new clothing, that's post traumatic dress syndrome.
- A pessimist's blood type is always B-negative.
These puns are already a little more sophisticated. You need to understand the importance of a reception or post traumatic stress syndrome or simply what is a pessimist. These are everyday puns, which might still make us smile, but wouldn't surprise us anymore. Even for me, as I probably heard them for the first time, they seemed nice, but no really worth remembering.
- In a democracy it’s your vote that counts. In feudalism it’s your count that votes.
- Two hydrogen atoms meet. One says, ‘I’ve lost my electron.’ The other says ‘Are you sure?’ The first replies, ‘Yes, I’m positive.’
- If you don't pay your exorcist, you will get repossessed.
These puns are even more difficult to understand as they require more knowledge about the underlying topic or simply more life experience. You need to know financial processes around repossession or physical knowledge about atoms or simply an understanding of history and global politics. Those are the ones I call sophisticated puns.
And then are the top class puns. They are not only funny, but they also convey a truth or a greater meaning. They are the ones that make it on quotes. Below two examples from Dorothy Parker:
- It served me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard (which she allegedly said on about her her abortion). A simple pun, but to understand it depth you need to understand the hardness of life as well as the concept of humor as a way to deal with it.
- On another occasion she said to tell somebody that she was "Too fucking busy, and vice versa."
- Or one with unknown origin: "Guerrilla warfare is more than just throwing a banana."
How to Use Puns in Your Writing
In first person you can have a character or the narrator make a pun. In all other viewpoints, I would let a character make a pun as a general rule. A pun made by a narrator in third person feels like the author wanted to be witty.
However, a character shouldn't pun out of character. Or put differently, the pun defines the character. For example for a character that is insecure or afraid of something you can let them constantly make everyday puns. If you want to give a character a sarcastic or cynical note you can let them make sarcastic or cynical puns.
If you have a great pun, one that you invented yourself, you should test it before using it.
For years I had this answer ready when somebody asked me in Spanish, "Que pasa?" (what's up?), I would answer "El condor". Well, what is funny about this? The verb pasar in que pasa means what happens but in the song el condor pasa it means the condor passes by. Although I am still convinced, none of my Spanish speaking friends actually found it funny.
Hence, not everything that is funny for you is really funny for others and especially as you put it into a book it needs to be tested. Tell it to friends, to fellow writers or test it with strangers. You will immediately see their reaction.
In that sense, happy punning.
Your writer in a foreign land