Keep your PUN-chy statements in check. Why should you avoid puns in formal writing? [Tuesdays: “Write with the Pen of the Masters”]
I was struggling to figure out how lightning works, but then it struck me.”
Do you catch the double meaning?
Imagine reading this (or a similar line) in the introduction of a letter sent by a science professor, or in a work email sent by the CEO of a large electronics company.
How would you feel after reading that statement?
Confused? You’re not alone.
What is a pun?
Also known as paronomasia, a pun uses words with multiple meanings, or similar sounding, for an intended rhetorical or humorous effect.
A pun can be:
This type of pun uses homophones, or words that sound alike but are not synonymous with each other.
For example, George Carlin used this type in his statement, “Atheism is a non-prophet institution.”
Carlin used the word prophet instead of its homophone profit, thus altering the phrase “non-profit institution.”
This pun uses homographs, or words that are spelled the same but have different meanings and sounds. It is also known as heteronymic pun and relies more on sight rather than hearing, contrary to the homophonic pun.
Here is an example from Douglas Adam’s line, “You can tune a guitar, but you can’t tuna fish. Unless of course you play bass.”
A homophonic pun is made with tune a and tuna, while the word bass uses the homographic pun, since bass (with a long “a”) pertains to a string instrument while bass (with a short “a”) pertains to a type of fish.
This type contains both aspects of the homophonic and homographic pun.
In this example, “Two silk worms had a race and ended with a tie.”
The word tie in the pun could mean that neither party won, or that they were able to make a tie, a piece of clothing usually made of silk.
This type of pun includes more than one pun. Here is a famous example from English rhetorician and theologian, Richard Whateley.
- “Why can a man never starve in the Great Desert? Because he can eat the sand which is there. But what brought the sandwiches there? Why, Noah sent Ham, and his descendants mustered and bred.”
We can see a few separate puns like sand which is and sandwiches, Ham (a Biblical figure) and the food ham, as well as mustered (for mustard) and bred (for bread).
This pun requires the person on the receiving end to understand the first half of the joke first in order to understand the second part.
For example: “Immanuel doesn’t pun, he Kant.”
The receiver should first know who Immanuel is (and that his surname is Kant) in order to understand that the word Kant is an alteration to the word can’t
Now we know what a pun is and its types… have you ever wondered why some people laugh (or sometimes groan) at puns?
In 2011, a group of neuroscientists conducted a study as to why people laugh or groan at puns. After the study, they discovered that puns activate a “puzzle-solving” region in the brain before they activate the regions associated with humor.
The pun causes a brief moment of micro-discomfort, causing the brain to activate its puzzle-solving mechanisms. Once the brain solves the puzzle, the discomfort is alleviated, causing people to react either by laughing or groaning.
When to use and when not to use puns?
Puns are acceptable when used in comedies or jokes, when talking to a friend, in rhetoric, and in literary pieces. Puns shouldn’t be used when the person you’re talking to is your boss, or someone in the academic field or corporate field.
You should also be wary of including puns in formal essays, letters, or emails as this can cause confusion for your readers.
Aside from the fact that puns are informal and can spark double meanings, you don’t want your readers to not take you seriously when you’re really being serious, do you?
A formal piece of writing calls for a simple and direct language. Moreover, its language should be the kind you use when delivering a serious speech, and not when you’re talking with your friends.
Here are some reasons why puns should be avoided in formal writing, as stated by famous authors:
- “To trifle with the vocabulary which is the vehicle of social intercourse is to tamper with the currency of human intelligence. He who would violate the sanctities of his Mother Tongue would invade the recesses of the paternal till without remorse.” – Samuel Johnson, author of the 1755 Dictionary of the English Language
- “Puns are threatening because puns reveal the arbitrariness of meaning, and the layers of nuance that can be packed onto a single word…” – John Pollack, a communications consultant and author of The Pun Also Rises
Jo Firestone, a consulting producer for The Chris Gethard Show, also made this statement regarding puns:
- “[Puns] are a totally frivolous unnecessary thing to say most of the time. It usually is just to derail the conversation or to add wordplay when wordplay doesn’t belong there, it’s kind of like the annoying younger brother or sister of the comedy world.”
Remember to keep puns away from your formal writing pieces!
About The Dynamic Marketing Communiqué’s
“Tuesdays: Write with the Pen of the Masters”
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