Following on from my last copywriting blog post about portmanteau puns, here are some thoughts on puns in general. Why are some clever and some just cringey? Which ones fall into the so-bad-they’re-good category? Should we even go there? Here are my tips for successful punning.
Know your pun-ters
Punning is like making a joke at a wake – you really, really have to know how your audience will take it. A pun can be hideously inappropriate and change the tone of your writing completely.
I’m currently writing copy that will be translated into four languages – puns don’t translate. Plus, when a lot of your clients don’t necessarily read UK English, any UK-specific idiom is best avoided, including wordplay.
I permit myself some gentle punning for catalogue copy. After all, the client and I would look pretty po-faced if we had absolutely straight copy for novelty socks (the quaver ones “strike the right note” for musicians, by the way).
Don’t feel that you have to pun. Hair salons – please take note.
Hairdressing puns are never good. Cutting Room, Cutting Edge, Cutting Crew, Get Ahead, Just a Snip, and my favourite, eighties’ sitcom-inspired Hair Flicks are all well, hair-raisingly bad. Sweep them up, and bin them. It is not compulsory.
If you’re working on a strapline or headline, it doesn’t have to have clever wordplay to be eye-catching. Maybe try a bit of alliteration (but again, don’t overuse it), or perhaps just have confidence that your words and message are so good that they don’t need any gimmicks.
So, don’t be a hair salon. Don’t feel that you have to use a pun. Don’t pun-ish yourself (ho ho ho).
Read The Sun
Or maybe just take a quick glance at its headline. Whatever you feel about their editorial, politics or the fact they think that breasts are news, the good old Pun has the clever wordplay headline nailed. Sometimes, if I hear of a news event (the shallow-end of news, obviously. Royal pregnancies or politicians falling over) I search out The Sun’s take on it just for the joy of the groany-yet-genius headline. Read and learn.
What are pun seekers looking for these days?
What’s the pun zeitgeist (I can’t even begin to think of a pun for that word…)? While writing my previous post on portmanteau puns, it seems that these frankenwords are the way forward at the moment, possibly because they suit the brevity of the pithy tweet. Recent examples include affluenza, netiquette and bromance.
Despite The Sun’s efforts, some puns just feel a bit dated. We Brits love a double entrendre – but watch out for those innuendoes. Times have changed since the Carry On days; and the contemporary naughty pun either has to be laden with irony or stunningly clever.
And if punning online, the usual internet rule applies: if your wordplay can be illustrated by a picture of a kitten, it’s purrfect (sorry).
Just know when to stop.I love an extended metaphor as much as the next person, but easy now – a whole web page or newsletter that has you creasing up over the sheer amount of clever puns you can fit in may just be plain irritating to most of your readers. For a blog post about punning, aside from the appalling title, I have used remarkably few (which has taken super-human effort).
Take a pun(t) and just go for it
If you feel that a pun would be appropriate, don’t be shy. Have fun playing with language, stay on the right side of flippant, and just enjoy imagining all those groans your finely-crafted wisecrack will set off.
As nineteenth-century essayist Charles Lamb wrote in “The Worst Puns are the Best”:
“A pun is not bound by the laws which limit nicer wit. It is a pistol let off at the ear; not a feather to tickle the intellect.”
This blog post is dedicated to my friend and fellow paronomasiac, writer and pun-mistress Vashti Zarach, originator of Punday back in our schooldays.