Puns can be classified in various ways:
The homophonic pun, a common type, uses word pairs which sound alike (homophones) but are not synonymous. Walter Redfern exemplified this type with his statement "To pun is to treat homonyms as synonyms". For example, in George Carlin's phrase "Atheism is a non-prophet institution", the word "prophet" is put in place of its homophone "profit", altering the common phrase "non-profit institution". Similarly, the joke "Question: Why do we still have troops in Germany? Answer: To keep the Russians in Czech" relies on the aural ambiguity of the homophones "check" and "Czech". Often, puns are not strictly homophonic, but play on words of similar, not identical, sound as in the example from the "Pinky and the Brain" cartoon film series: "I think so, Brain, but if we give peas a chance, won't the lima beans feel left out?" which plays with the similar – but not identical – sound of "peas" and "peace".
Some words are homophones only when spoken in certain accents. Here are some examples of puns that depend on being pronounced in a particular accent:
- "Caesar salad" (Scissor salad) in an Italian accent:
- Customer: "I'd like a Caesar salad.
- Italian waiter: "Sir! Are you sure you want the Scissor salad? You'll cut your mouth!"
- "Space" (Spice) in certain accents:
- Spice...The final frontier. So much flavour! — Space, on the other hand, is mostly devoid of flavour and matter.
- Q: What was the name of the first group of female astronauts? A: The Space Girls.
- "The Nail River" (The Nile River) in certain accents:
- Never take your raft down the nail river. It'll pop instantly.
A homographic pun exploits words which are spelled the same (homographs) but possess different meanings and sounds. Because of their nature, they rely on sight more than hearing, contrary to homophonic puns. They are also known as heteronymic puns. Examples in which the punned words typically exist in two different parts of speech often rely on unusual sentence construction, as in the anecdote: "When asked to explain his large number of children, the pig answered simply: 'The wild oats of my sow gave us many piglets.' " An example which combines homophonic and homographic punning is Douglas Adams's line "You can tune a guitar, but you can't tuna fish. Unless of course, you play bass." The phrase uses the homophonic qualities of "tune a" and "tuna", as well as the homographic pun on "bass", in which ambiguity is reached through the identical spellings of /ˈbeɪs/ (a string instrument), and /ˈbæs/ (a kind of fish).
Homonymic puns, another common type, arise from the exploitation of words which are both homographs and homophones. The statement "Being in politics is just like playing golf: you are trapped in one bad lie after another" puns on the two meanings of the word lie as "a deliberate untruth" and as "the position in which something rests". An adaptation of a joke repeated by Isaac Asimov gives us "Did you hear about the little moron who strained himself while running into the screen door?", playing on 'strained' as "to give much effort" and "to filter". A homonymic pun may also be polysemic, in which the words must be homonymic and also possess related meanings, a condition which is often subjective. However, lexicographers define polysemes as listed under a single dictionary lemma (a unique numbered meaning) while homonyms are treated in separate lemmata.
A compound pun is a statement that contains two or more puns. For example, a complex statement by Richard Whately includes four puns: "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." This pun uses "sand which is there/sandwiches there, "Ham/ham", "mustered/mustard", and "bred/bread". Compound puns may also combine two phrases that share a word. For example, "Where do mathematicians go on weekends? To a Möbius strip club!" puns on Möbius strip and strip club.
A recursive pun is one in which the second aspect of a pun relies on the understanding of an element in the first. For example the statement "π is only half a pie." (π radians is 180 degrees, or half a circle, and a pie is a complete circle). Another example is "Infinity is not in finity," which means infinity is not in finite range. Another example is "A Freudian slip is when you say one thing but mean your mother." Finally, we are given "Immanuel doesn't pun, he Kant" by Oscar Wilde. Visual puns are used in many logos, emblems, insignia, and other graphic symbols, in which one or more of the pun aspects are replaced by a picture. In European heraldry, this technique is called canting arms. Visual and other puns and word games are also common in Dutch gable stones as well as in some cartoons, such as Lost Consonants and The Far Side.
Another type of visual pun exists in languages which use non-phonetic writing. For example, in Chinese, a pun may be based on a similarity in shape of the written character, despite a complete lack of phonetic similarity in the words punned upon. Mark Elvin describes how this "peculiarly Chinese form of visual punning involved comparing written characters to objects."
Richard J. Alexander notes two additional forms which puns may take: graphological (sometimes called visual) puns, such as concrete poetry; and morphological puns, such as portmanteaus.
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