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English Stylistics Class 2013. Pun — Zeugma — Irony — Malapropism


pun is a phrase that deliberately exploits confusion between similar-soundingwords for humorous or rhetorical effect.                                                                                                                                          A pun may also cause confusion between two senses of the same written or spoken word, due to homophony, homography, homonymy, polysemy, or metaphorical usage. Walter Redfern has said: "To pun is to treat homonyms as synonyms". ["Puns", Blackwell, London, 1984] Another definition has said that a pun is a word that has two sources used simultaneously (example origin). For example, in the phrase, "There is nothing punny about bad puns", the pun takes place in the deliberate confusion of the implied word "funny" by the substitution of the word "punny", a heterophone of "funny". By definition, puns must be deliberate; an involuntary substitution of similar words is called a malapropism.Puns are a form of word play, and can occur in all natural languages. A person who is fond of making puns is called a punster.

Punning, 'the humorous use of words to suggest different meanings', has been a feature of language at least since the time of Aristotle, who approved of them in some kinds of writing. Some famous historical examples include the description by Pope Gregory I (6th century) of English slaves as Non Angli, sed angeli('not Angles, but angels') and, from a much later date (1843) the reputed message of Sir Charles Napier to the British War Office reporting his conquest of the Indian province of Sind with the single Latin word Peccavi ('I have sinned'). About 3,000 puns occur in the works of Shakespeare, among them Mercutio's dying words in Romeo and Juliet (iii.i.98; modernized spelling): Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. An intentionally dreadful pun can be found in a mock epitaph of Byron, dated 1807, for John Adams, a carrier of Southwell, who died of drunkenness: For the liquor he drank, being too much for one, He could not carry off,—so he's now carri-on. In modern usage, puns occur frequently in casual conversation and are much loved by writers of newspaper headlines.

Zeugma is a figure of speech describing the joining of two or more parts of a sentence with a single common verb or noun. A zeugma employs both ellipsis, the omission of words which are easily understood, and parallelism, the balance of several words or phrases. The result is a series of similar phrases joined or yoked together by a common and implied noun or verb. In a modern sense, the zeugma has been classified as a synonym for syllepsis, a particular kind of zeugma, although there is a clear distinction between the two in classical treatises written on the subject. Henry Peacham praises the “delight of the ear” in the use of the zeugma in rhetoric, but stresses to avoid “too many clauses.” The zeugma is categorized according to the location and part of speech of the governing word.

  • -"You are free to execute your laws, and your citizens, as you see fit."
    (Star Trek: The Next Generation)

-"Kill the boys and the luggage!"
(Fluellen in William Shakespeare's Henry V)

Irony isthe use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of itsliteral meaning: the irony of her reply, “How nice!” when I said I hadto work all weekend.

Three kinds of irony are commonly recognized:                                                            Verbal irony is a trope in which the intended meaning of a statement differs from the meaning that the words appear to express.                                                       Situational irony involves an incongruity between what is expected or intended and what actually occurs.                                                                                                     Dramatic irony is an effect produced by a narrative in which the audience knows more about present or future circumstances than a character in the story.

For example:

"Stay Awake" sung by Mary Poppins to magically put children to sleep.

In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet speaks from her balcony, not realizing Romeo can hear her.


A malapropism is an act of misusing or the habitual misuse of similar sounding words, especially with humorous results. An example is Yogi Berra's statement: "Texas has a lot of electrical votes,"[1] rather than "electoral votes".

Distinguishing features

An instance of mis-speech is called a malapropism when:

  1. The word or phrase that is used meaning something different from the word the speaker or writer intended to use.
  2. The word or phrase that is used sounds similar to the word that was apparently meant or intended. For example, using obtuse (wide or dull) instead of acute (narrow or sharp) is not a malapropism; using obtuse (stupid or slow-witted) when one means abstruse (esoteric or difficult to understand) would be.
  3. The word or phrase that is used has a recognized meaning in the speaker's or writer's language.
  4. The resulting utterance is nonsense.

Examples in English language

Mrs. Malaprop

All of these examples are from Sheridan's play The Rivals.

  • "...promise to forget this fellow - to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory." (i.e.obliterate; Act I Scene II Line 178)
  • "...she might reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying." (i.e. comprehend; Act I Scene II Line 258)
  • "...she's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile." (i.e. alligator; Act III Scene III Line 195)
  • "Sure, if I reprehend any thing in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nicederangement of epitaphs!" (i.e. apprehendvernaculararrangementepithets)
  • To make their characters look foolish, authors and playwrights sometimes utilize malapropism. The name come from the character Mrs. Malaprop, from the play The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Mrs. Malaprop, perhaps the most amusing character in this 18th century comedy, constantly abuses the English language.
  • Here are a few of my favorite quotes from Mrs. Malaprop:
  • "We will not anticipate the past, our retrospection will now be all to the future."
  • "The pineapple of politeness" (Instead of "pinnacle of politeness.")
  • "She's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile" (Instead of "alligator on the banks of the Nile.")

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