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Puns in TEFL Teaching

Linguistics, Vocabulary & Spelling


What grammar related pun is shown here?

Puns are ambiguous; they are words (or phrases) which sound the same but which have two very different meanings used for humorous effect. (A traditional explanation of a pun is a “play on words” but since this defines everything from puns to Spoonerisms to Malapropsims to Pig Latin it really is too general to use here.)

This example illustrates a pun well:

A boiled egg for breakfast is hard to beat.

There are two meanings here of hard to beat:

  1. not able to be surpassed, i.e. nothing is better than a boiled egg
  2. cannot be whisked, i.e. because the boiled egg is hard you can’t whisk it into scrambled eggs, for example

The usual response to a pun is a groan from the audience. Traditionally, making a pun never leads to laugh-out-loud humor. Joseph Addison the playwright reportedly said that puns were, “the lowest form of wit”; the usual response is to say this is because they are the foundation of all humor.

In the TEFL‏‎ classroom puns are useful for several good reasons:

  1. They break the ice. A bad pun (and most of them are) releases tension and relaxes everyone.
  2. They can be very useful to explain homonyms; the students will remember the word and its two meanings if its associated with a pun.

Because a good pun relies not on the similarity of words but also of meaning, it has a place in TEFL.

Homophonic & Homographic Puns

Homophones‏‎ are words which are spelled differently but sound the same. Examples of homophonic puns include:

Atheism is a non-prophet/profit institution.

Doctors need plenty of patience/patients.

Shakespeare writes in Richard III:

Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son/sun of York.

Here the pun relies on the sound of son and sun. (Interestingly, some modern scholars estimate that almost half of Shakespeare’s puns have been lost, however, due to changes in the pronunciation of English since they were written.)

Some homophones, however, will need specific pronunciation:

As a boy, Henry VIII was taught by his personal Tudor/tutor.

This example above works in many dialects but by no means all.

Usefully for teachers, almost any homophone can be worked into a pun and this will help the class remember it. Suppose you come across the word, copse, in a text. Explain to the class the meaning and then give them this homophonic pun to remember it:

Where do policemen hide? In a copse!

Meanwhile homographs‏‎ are words which are spelled the same, but have different meanings and pronunciation. Because of this they work best when written.

Corduroy pillows are making headlines.

Did you hear about the optometrist who fell into a lens grinder and made a spectacle of himself?

Of course you can mix homographic and homophonic puns:

You can tune a guitar, but you can’t tuna fish. Unless of course, you play bass.

This sentence from Douglas Adams relies on the homophonic pun tune a and tuna along with the homographic pun of bass (as in the instrument and the fish).

Puns vs Malapropisms

A malapropism is a word used wrongly – and accidentally – in place of a correct word. Someone might want to say:

Our distinguished guest is Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

But instead say:

Our extinguished guest is Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

This is not a pun as such, but the same principle could be used humorously in the right circumstances:

I read a book on proctology; it’s a vast suppository of information.

Here the word suppository is used instead of repository. It is not a pun per se, but could almost be classed as one due to the similarity of the two words.

Example Puns

The following puns are all related to language, teaching and grammar in some way.

Santa’s helpers are subordinate clauses.

A backward poet writes inverse.

There was once a cross-eyed teacher who couldn’t control his pupils.

He traveled all over the world to practice his intonation.

See those birds over there? They’re speaking pigeon English.

And these are less so but worth repeating:

I’m reading a book about anti-gravity. It’s impossible to put down.

I couldn’t quite remember how to throw a boomerang, but eventually it came back to me.

He drove his expensive car into a tree and found out how the Mercedes bends.

If you don’t pay your exorcist you get repossessed.

A lot of money is tainted. ‘Taint yours and ‘taint mine.

A plateau is a high form of flattery.

Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?

When a clock is hungry it goes back four seconds.

The Buddhist refused pain-killers during the root canal because he wanted to transcend dental medication.

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