Episode 21: Puns, Alliteration, and Other Quandaries


The whole world of writing wilts when writers whip the world with wordplay. In recent months, I have come across several instances of clever writers relying on a literary trick in order to make their works stand out. One, for example, wrote a book of short stories in which each chapter used only one vowel throughout (I will not link it here—you’ll have to find it yourself). Yes, that is an amazingly difficult task; no, that isn’t effective literature.

Don’t get me wrong. Witty repartee is a highlight of any word-lovers day. (My wife would tell you that I am one to throw around the puns with reckless abandon.) However, when the words themselves become more important than the message, you’ve lost the message. To use a worn metaphor, you’re too busy carving your initials in the trees to see that there’s a whole forest around you.

Wordplay can be a useful subtext to what you’re writing—if you are writing something informal or creative. In formal writing, such elements undermine your crediblity. That is, say you are reading a scientific paper, and you see this:

The serious scientists at the Stanford Science Center see the sea salt as satisfactory.

How many research grants do you think they’ll receive? (However, they might get some sea shells by the sea shore.)

In creative writing, you can certainly get away with—and should experiment with—some subtle twists of meaning. Shakespeare, my always-handy-literary-giant example, made a craft of it, though perhaps his wordplay works better now simply because the English language has shifted away from the nuances he intended. As he did, you will often find that poetry is especially ripe for some double entendres (ambiguity of meaning often for humor’s sake). Short stories and some non-fiction prose do allow for some of this as well, but such ludic (playful) literature draws attention to itself.

In essence, the best advice is simply to make sure that you want to draw attention to what you’re writing. Do you want the reader to pay attention to how you’re saying something more than what you’re saying? There’s no right answer here; I simply recommend that you ask yourself that question when you decide to use some of the following devices:

Puns: This is simply a double meaning to a word or phrase. These can be one of the most subtle devices, but they can also cause the most groaning.

The east wind winds around the bend.

Alliteration: As you saw in the introductory sentence, this is repeating a consonant sound throughout a phrase. (These are often used in tongue twisters.) Repeating a vowel sound has another name (assonance), but it still falls under this category.

Billy Bob bopped Brad before the bout began. (I am exaggerating, of course.)

Metaphors and Similes: Chances are, if two things are being compared, then one of these literary devices is being used. A simile uses linking words (e.g., like, as) to make the connection, and a metaphor uses either a connecting verb (e.g., a form of to be) or simple replacement. For my money, metaphors are the stronger of the two.

He came through like a linebacker chasing the ballcarrier. (simile for football season)

The moon was a Nilla Wafer in the sky. (metaphor for those thinking about banana pudding)

And there are dozens more you could pull out of your college or high school English book, but the same rule applies for almost all of them: think before you leap.

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3 thoughts on “Episode 21: Puns, Alliteration, and Other Quandaries

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