A pun is a play on words, specifically a joke that takes advantage of different meanings of a word. Two great examples can be found in the first words of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern flip coins.
ROS (raises his head at GUIL): Seventy-six love.(GUIL gets up but has nowhere to go. He spins another coin over his shoulder without looking at it, his attention being directed at his environment or lack of it.)Heads.
GUIL: A weaker man might be moved to re-examine his faith, if in nothing else at least in the law of probability. (He slips a coin over his shoulder as he goes to look upstage.)
ROS: Heads.(GUIL, examining the confines of the stage, flips over two more coins, as he does so, one by one of course. ROS announces each of them as "heads".)
GUIL (musing): The law of probability, as it has been oddly asserted, is something to do with the proposition that if six monkeys (he has surprised himself)... if six monkeys were...
GUIL: Were they?
ROS: Are you?
GUIL (understanding): Game. (Flips a coin.) The law of averages, if I have got this right, means that if six monkeys were thrown up in the air for long enough they would land on their tails about as often as they would land on their -
ROS: Heads. (He picks up the coin.)
As you can see by reading the stage directions italicized inside parentheses, each time the coin lands heads up, Rosencrantz collects it. For most of the scene and in fact, all of Act 1, the coin lands heads up, making Rosencrantz richer than Guildenstern who becomes increasingly uncomfortable in a world where the Law of Probability does not appear to operate.
While developing this aspect of Guildenstern’s character, Stoppard engages the audience and signals that the play will be comedic with plays on the words game and heads. Game describes wild animals as well as competitions between humans and as a verb, the propensity to engage in a game or escapade. Here are sentences using the word game and each of three meanings.
• Ernest Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt traveled to Africa to hunt big game. They often hung the heads of their kill on their walls as trophies.
• Will you join me for a game of Scrabble?
• Are you game for a re-match so that I can try to win back some of my money?
In addition, Stoppard uses the word heads in a second pun. Heads refers to one side of a coin for most of the scene, but in the last line quoted above, heads refers to the portion of a monkey's body that protects the brain. In addition, the image of a monkey landing on its head to prove or disprove the Law of Probability is pretty funny.
Other examples of puns follow.
• I think a job as a shoe salesmen would be your best fit. (Alexei Memorich)
• His brief Hollywood career came to an end, when he was arrested for armed robbery. He proved to be a shooting star. (Andreas, Athens, Greece)
• Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes Benz (lyric from “Hotel California,” sung by the Eagles, written by Don Felder, Don Henley, and Glenn Frey)
• Tomorrow . . . you shall find me a grave man, said Mercutio as he lay dying in Romeo and Juliet (3. 1. 93-94).
• At the electric company: We would be delighted if you send in your bill. However, if you don't, you will be [de-lighted—get it?].
Clever writers will add to their readers’ delight by making use of puns to jar imaginations and elicit a chortle or giggle.
Read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard in print or on film. Try to count and record the many uses of puns.
Visit www.punoftheday.com and www.buzzle.com. Try to write an original pun after reading the many, many examples at those sites, then submit your original pun so that you too can be read and studied by other writers and students.
Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):
I have mentioned before that correct usage requires that you discuss and analyze literature using the present tense because the work itself lives on in the present moment, long after the writer has created it or after the writer’s death. Look back at this post and re-read the two paragraphs that follow the long, quoted passage from the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. These two paragraphs are written in the present tense.
Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.