Puns, do you have the wit to know good from bad?

I’m always glad when Easter is over. It means another year before I have to read a headline or introduction with literary contortions such as ‘eggsasperated’, ‘eggsciting’ and ‘eggstravaganza’.

Does anyone really think this sort of wordplay is amusing or clever?

I am not, as you might have guessed, a great fan of puns.

Harold Evans (in Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers, Pimlico 2000) warns that when they are used: “Writers must not be caught giggling at their own joke by exclamation marks, quotes, italic or any other red-nose devices of prose”. He also warns of puns “trussed in quotes”, and of puns based on people’s names: “they and everyone else stopped laughing at that one at the christening”.

A good test of a pun’s worth, he suggests, is to ask yourself whether the wording, in making its joke, also indicates the news or makes the writer’s point. That, to my mind, rules out about 90 per cent of those you read.

Keith Waterhouse (English Our English, Penguin, 1994) says the great grammarian HW Fowler is surprisingly tolerant of puns on the basis that they may be “good, bad or indifferent, and only those who lack the wit to make them are unaware of the fact”.

Waterhouse, however, counters: “The trouble is that those who lack the wit to make them are the ones who make them most”.

The other great problem with puns is their contagiousness. Once they start to appear in a publication they spread rapidly. The danger is that once executives become tolerant of them staff writers start indulging in literary swordplay, trying to outdo each other with more and more outrageous efforts.

Such an outbreak seems to have broken out in one regional daily I picked up recently.

Headlines included:

  • Laundrette with a reel difference (a laundrette in a former cinema where customers can watch old black-and-white films while they do their washing)
  • It’s doggone ruff justice for Bella and Blakey (two police dogs rejected by the force for being too ‘shy’)
  • City hasn’t gone ape over The Monkees (Monkees tribute show’s poor ticket sales)

The last person being considered here is the reader, who is likely to be completely baffled by such heavy-handed attempts at humour (especially on stories that are not at all humorous themselves).

My preference is to play safe and avoid puns on all but light-hearted storie. Mind you, I’d never say no to the occasional inspired effort such as Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious (The Sun’s report of Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s 3-1 win in the Scottish Cup at Parkhead in 2000).

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About John Wilson

Editor of Hereford Times, Ludlow Advertiser, Stroud News and Journal, Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard and Gloucestershire Gazette series. Journalist for more than 30 years.
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