What's up with the "pun (not) intended" thing?

66

5

Whenever I read a carefully composed English text with a pun in it, the stated "pun" is always followed by an explanation whether or not it was intended.

Why is that?

Where I come from (the Czech Republic) it is considered harmful to the humor to explicitly draw attention to it or, worse, explain it. But in English, as it seems, you can't play with the language with impunity (pun intended very intensively). Is it just a matter of correctness, or is there something else behind it?

Pavel

Posted 2016-01-13T16:16:41.537

Reputation: 436

20The key to understanding this is to realize that puns aren't humor. (Proof: you laugh at humor, but you groan at puns.) – Martha – 2016-01-13T17:40:28.733

6

Similar question on ELU: https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/111610/how-to-use-no-pun-intended - in contrast to some answer here, the opinion there mostly is that "no pun indented" is almost always used to draw attention to an intended pun.

– kapex – 2016-01-13T20:22:51.120

But none of the answers address the real question, namely why does this happen much more often in English text than in other languages? (Maybe the question should have been asked on ELU.) Now I think of it, I can't think of a single example of a text in my own language where the author needs to point out they were making a pun, or they weren't.

– Mr Lister – 2016-01-13T21:34:56.140

47@Martha That's kind of biased, don't you think? I'm sure, given enough effort we could find a selection of puns that would make you chuckle. If we had less than eleven, but definitely more than nine, and even one made you laugh, you couldn't say no pun in ten did. – T.J.L. – 2016-01-13T21:37:29.220

4i HATE this phrase with a burning passion. if you noticed the pun and said "pun not intended", then clearly the pun was intended. how could it not have been? if you didn't want to make a pun, you would have chosen different words or not said "pun not intended" (because you didn't notice the pun). it's unnecessary language fluff, and i hate it. – ell – 2016-01-13T22:54:01.593

10

Related xkcd: No Pun Intended. :-)

– kay – 2016-01-13T23:29:44.543

2@T.J.L: by a simple "no true Scotsman" argument, if it's humorous then it's not a pun, it's a play on words. – Steve Jessop – 2016-01-14T01:03:21.027

1With regards to drawing attention to something. This has a long history in English (though I don't think it's specifically English). Sometimes when done right it's called "breaking the fourth wall". Sometimes it's self-parody. It's doing what the audience does not expect, breaking genre norms or trope. The logic is, a joke is funny if you don't explain it, if you explain a joke ironically the actual joke is that you are not funny (which is sometimes even more hilarious than the literal joke told). If done wrong it would only make you look stupid – slebetman – 2016-01-14T04:10:01.937

4Once a local newspaper had a joke competition where you could win nice prizes. I entered 10 jokes to see if any of them could win a prize, but no pun in ten did. – Bent – 2016-01-14T09:17:38.770

4@sgroves In think I hear the phrase most commonly in spoken language. Someone says something and afterward they notice the pun, so they say "no pun intended" so the listener won't think they have a lame sense of humour or aren't taking the subject seriously. But writing "no pun intended" would be illogical, as you point out. – mhwombat – 2016-01-14T16:40:34.470

1+1 for correct use of punception. Made me groan but it also made me smile. – Joao Arruda – 2016-01-14T18:08:03.793

@mhwombat i'm talking about in speech, too. if you didn't mean to make the pun, then don't call it out. it's just dumb. no one will think it was intentional if you don't give some sort of indication, like a smile. just continue on with what you want to say. – ell – 2016-01-14T20:02:33.200

2It is not difficult to say something and only afterward realize that what you said could be interpreted as a pun; in which case "Pun not intended" is valid. – None – 2016-01-14T18:06:04.210

12@sgroves - I think "no pun intended" is a shortened way of saying something more verbose, like, "Gee, I didn't mean to make that pun there, but, come to think of it, it's kinda funny." You can hate it all you want, but it's pretty well-established, and I don't have high hopes for your campaign to stamp it out. – J.R. – 2016-01-14T20:47:40.650

@jr me neither. i don't actually expect it to be stamped out: that would be idiotic and short-sighted. i just said i don't like it, and i still don't. it adds nothing to any conversation. – ell – 2016-01-14T20:55:29.380

@mhwombat I see the phrase in writing pretty often, and it's pretty annoying. OP, I think I read a rant about this somewhere (complaining about how stupid the phrase is whether or not you include the word "not"), but I can't remember where, unfortunately. – Kyle Strand – 2016-01-15T20:50:10.247

People don't usually say pun intended, but they tell the audience with their face and voice inflections. However, unintended spoken puns usually go unnoticed unless one of the audience members brings it up. Written words allow for much more reflection as you "speak", hence, comments about what you are saying is natural. – fredsbend – 2016-01-15T21:28:50.210

1@sgroves: It's happened to me so many times that I did not even think of any pun, but then said or written a word and realized it made a pun. Was the pun intended? No, but that's what I wrote and I noticed it... so I write down "no pun intended" to mention that it wasn't intentional. (Doubly important if the secondary meaning is not desirable in the context!) – Mehrdad – 2016-01-16T10:47:04.803

Yeah, that's what she said ... – Hagen von Eitzen – 2016-01-16T12:49:05.870

1@kapep I think most puns here are intended, but only a few are indented. – CJ Dennis – 2016-01-17T05:47:36.497

@SteveJessop So it's only punny when it ain't funny? :) – Deepak – 2016-01-17T08:46:33.983

@CJDennis oops, I neither indented nor intended that ;) – kapex – 2016-01-17T14:12:33.237

3One thing to note: Pointing out your puns is far more common in US English than the British English (similar to how Americans tend to point out their sarcasm etc). Brits/Commonwealth English speakers will usually let you work out for yourself if the pun was intentional. – Jon Story – 2016-01-17T17:43:50.650

@Mehrdad yes, but why? you could just not say anything, and no one would care. the average person realizes that some things people say sound like puns even when they aren't intended to be. give your audience some credit. we all use language every day. we get it how it works. – ell – 2016-01-19T16:54:02.230

@sgroves: Your "no one would care" attitude is based on the idea that people don't care about puns, but some people actually do enjoy them and do care. If you don't, then you can just ignore it. – Mehrdad – 2016-01-19T17:13:49.390

@Mehrdad yeah, but there's a time and a place. people who say "no pun intended" constantly are quite annoying (i know people who do this). just say what you want to say. – ell – 2016-01-19T18:22:40.577

Answers

80

It's not required to say whether or not a pun was intended. When someone writes 'pun not intended' they mean something like this:

Since this is a serious subject, I want to make it clear that I would not intentionally make jokes about it, because that would be inappropriate behaviour. However, I want you to know that I have enough of a sense of humour to recognise that it could be a pun, even though I didn't intend for it to be one.

When people write 'pun very much intended' they mean something like:

I have enough of a sense of humour to make puns, and want to make sure that you noticed this one, and that you know that it was deliberate and not just a happy accident.

Otherwise we just pun with impunity.

ssav

Posted 2016-01-13T16:16:41.537

Reputation: 6 519

50I would like to point out that "pun not intended" is sometimes used sarcastically when the pun actually IS intended. This may be more likely to happen if the pun is inappropriate or not politically correct, as a tongue in cheek way for the speaker to say, "Oops, did I just say that?", when in fact they completely meant to say that. – MikeS – 2016-01-13T23:23:16.660

2It is also possible for someone else to comment on what was just said with a "no pun intended". – CJ Dennis – 2016-01-17T05:45:11.070

Those happy little accidents are what make the English language fun :D – Tejas Kale – 2016-01-17T13:27:31.800

34

I upvoted @ssav and maybe I'm just saying the same thing in different words, but here's my take.

Sometimes when you are speaking, you accidentally or coincidentally use words that sound similar and that could be taken as a pun. If you're trying to be serious, when you do this you sometimes say, "Oh, no pun intended" to make clear that you were not trying to tell a joke, you are making a serious comment.

This issue is mostly limited to puns, as you rarely tell some other sort of joke by accident. I can easily imagine someone lecturing on coal mining saying, "Today we will discuss boring techniques. I don't want this to be boring so ... oh, no pun intended ..." and then go on with what he has to say. It would be very unlikely for someone to be discussing coal mining and say, "The first step in strip mining is to conduct a site survey. Like when a priest, a rabbi, and an atheist walk into a bar, and the priest says ... but oh wait, I didn't mean to tell a joke."

Not that it never happens. Occasionally a speaker will coincidentally say something that sounds like a well-known joke. If he catches it, he may stop and say, "oh, that sounds like a joke" or "that's not a joke". For example, I had a neighbor who raised chickens, and one day my kids and I noticed that one of her chickens had escaped from its pen. My daughter said, "We should tell her that one of her chickens crossed the road." Then she paused and added, "I think I've invented a joke."

The flip side is that if you did deliberately make a pun, and you think people might be taking you too seriously to notice it, you can say "pun intended" to make clear that it was deliberate. I think this is relatively rare because, as you say, explaining a joke usually ruins the humor. (Nothing destroys a joke like the speaker saying, "You get it? It's funny because you think the guy was talking about his car, but then when you hear the punch line you realize he was really talking about ..." etc. If the joke was funny, an explanation usually makes it cease to be funny.)

Jay

Posted 2016-01-13T16:16:41.537

Reputation: 45 478

12"If the joke was funny, an explanation usually makes it cease to be funny" -- next week at the same time, we'll be talking about anti-humour, and how intentionally doing something that prevents your joke being funny can become funny. – Steve Jessop – 2016-01-14T01:05:44.337

1@SteveJessop Sure. Are you old enough to remember Johnny Carson? When one of his jokes bombed, he would go into a whole routine about how bad the joke was, or how tough the audience was. He was an expert at recovering from failed jokes. – Jay – 2016-01-14T07:14:36.297

1I know roughly who he was but I'm not American enough to have seen much of him. I'm also thinking of the British comedian Stewart Lee, who deliberately loses audiences in order to win them back by explaining to them how he lost them. – Steve Jessop – 2016-01-14T11:21:46.683

1As your answer says, I think "no pun intended" after an accidental pun is much more common than "pun intended" after a deliberate pun. – J.R. – 2016-01-14T20:42:57.327

17

While sometimes you might want to draw attention to a certain pun by adding 'pun intended', more often than not (in my experience, anyway), the 'pun intended' is part of the joke. Just as in Czech, drawing attention to a joke is considered bad style; this is the main theme in this lovely Monty Python sketch: obviously we know what the 'nudge nudge' guy means, and the joke is that he feels it's necessary to draw attention to it.

Puns are not really subtle in general. In fact, most people consider them very lame. The person making the pun will do this not so much for their audience's amusement, but for his own amusement by making the audience suffer through the horrible pun. The 'pun intended' addendum is then a way of saying

'I did not make this pun on accident, or genuinely think it's funny; I deliberately made you suffer, and now I'm making you suffer more by drawing attention to it'

This then, is very English: instead of saying in your FACE (which they consider too harsh), they will just subtly say 'pun intended' with a serene smile while they watch you suffer through both the pun AND the subsequent drawing attention to it.

Sanchises

Posted 2016-01-13T16:16:41.537

Reputation: 942

Cross-reference the pun dog meme

– anotherdave – 2016-02-18T23:34:13.647

I'm in the US, and when I go to the Monty Python - Nudge Nudge video, I get "This video contains content from Believe Entertainment, who has blocked it on copyright grounds. Sorry about that. :\"

– Scott – 2016-08-12T21:22:19.353

@Scott feel free to find another version and edit my answer. – Sanchises – 2016-08-13T16:10:43.303

6

English is a language that is given to puns. Its short words, lack of grammatical endings and large vocabulary stolen from many different languages means that making puns is not only easy, but more or less inevitable.

Some people don't like puns, and don't want to be accused of making them, so they say "Pun not intended" to ward off any such accusations.

Other people see this and start adding the phrase ironically, to draw attention to the pun.

Still other people see this and think "Drawing attention to the pun is nice, but I don't want to lie", so they say "Pun (very much) intended" instead.

In general, people write or say what they read or hear. This means that when such a phrase gets established as something that people use, people will continue to use it. This is the case in English, but not in Czech.

Stig Hemmer

Posted 2016-01-13T16:16:41.537

Reputation: 161

1Hardly stolen. Rather English speakers were conquered at least twice and language, especially Norman French, forced upon them. Some estimate 1 of every 4 English words is from French. – GoDucks – 2016-01-14T23:02:30.410

3

@GoDucks your comment score sources (G: Germanic, F: French, E: Old English, N: Norse, L: Latin, A: ancient): GG. GEGEFGGAF, FFF, FEN. GLAGAGGGF. 7 out of 26... about right. ;-) Maybe your roots are showing (pun intended). As to the 'stolen' aspect: Normans vs. Saxons: cow = beef, sheep = mutton, chicken =?.

– None – 2016-01-14T23:26:50.450

5

See, puns are meant to "break the ice", and they're indeed (at least for the most part) made in serious situations. I went to a convenience store once and there were two signs:

no checks allowed

I have nothing against Czechs I use them to pay for some stuff, but I hate checks, don't punish me, I'm not racist, but I made you snigger though!

Kyle

Posted 2016-01-13T16:16:41.537

Reputation: 231

1please don't use the "sn" word.. you racist. Just kidding – GoDucks – 2016-01-14T23:04:44.163

2That was painful. +1 – Wolfie Inu – 2016-01-15T05:53:52.593

3@WolfieInu You mean pun-full – Kyle – 2016-01-15T13:31:35.873

@GoDucks - I once got hit with an email ban from an over-zealous bot because I used the "sn" word. – Spudley – 2016-01-16T15:46:14.057

@Spudley well, I know there are some who would "ban" the use of niggard(ly) due to sound association, although it has a different origin from the actual n- word (nigger). The article by the Christopher Hitchens quoted by this etymology dictionary is an interesting read: Eschew the Taboo.

– GoDucks – 2016-01-16T16:34:44.957

2

Usually to denote clarity on whether or not the person should be taken seriously for what was said. Pun-ishment can vary.

Now was that hyphen necessary to show the pun? Is the pun really meant as something uplifting, emphasis or something else? This is where some people, particularly in formal writing may well state a (pun not intended) or (pun intended) to let the reader know that if the text was spoken there could be inflections and other shifts in how it is said to convey what tone there is that in the written word on a page doesn't always give a full context.

Consider how would you interpret this line(Where one word is used repeatedly without trying to add letters or other things to make it easier to understand):

Dude, dude dude.

(The idea here being there are more than a few possible meanings where, "Man, see that!" and "Whoa, I'm good" being a couple of possible meanings depending on context.)

JB King

Posted 2016-01-13T16:16:41.537

Reputation: 1 211

1Actually I don't get the dude thing. Is it similar to the buffalo^n thing? – Hagen von Eitzen – 2016-01-16T12:59:25.930

2

"No pun intended" can be useful when speaking (you're saying, "oops, I just noticed that was a pun but I wasn't intending to be non-serious; sorry; let's move on"). It's not so useful when writing (unless, despite having noticed the pun, you really cannot think of a way to re-word your sentence to avoid the pun).

"Pun intended" can be useful when speaking or writing, although often when speaking you can avoid it by using a tone of voice or facial expression instead. Its function, again, is to ensure that we move on with minimal distraction. I read the pun, I get the joke, but by immediately flagging it, you ensure closure immediately after that. If you fail to do that, someone will think they're the first to have noticed/thought of the pun and will probably sidetrack you by interrupting (or commenting) to point it out.

jez

Posted 2016-01-13T16:16:41.537

Reputation: 211

2

It is very difficult not to make puns in English because of the high rate of homophony (speech) and homography (text). This extends even beyond the strict lexical word, as these are a function of grammatical convention rather than spoken language, as well as to similarity rather than identity - I will give an example below that illustrates both these points.

When you are speaking/conversing, the context primes or activates words relevant to the different contexts. Words that are relevant to multiple contexts are thus doubly primed, and these words create ambiguity and come out as puns. When a double meaning is coming out we have several possibilities, 1. to suppress and repair/rephrase, 2. to extend and clarify the ambiguity, 3. to note that there is a humorous juxtaposition and add the 'unintended' disclaimer, 4. to deliberately accept and produce the pun without disclaimer, 5. to actually go ahead and claim the pun.

However, the original question specified "a carefully composed English text with a pun in it", implying that there certainly was time to rephrase and avoid the pun, but while it should always be possible to edit out a pun or other ambiguity, sometimes it isn't worth the trouble or would involve unusual circumlocution or deviation from the standard terminology (jargon), or I might even make a deliberate decision to lighten the tone by retaining it. In these cases a statement of intent can still be used - but I would seldom (if ever) make any "pun intention" statement in a formal document, and would let people see the pun or not as they choose.

In teaching about the difficulty of speech recognition and the importance of context, I routinely carefully enunciate the standard comment about wanting to "wreck a nice beach" - which every one alway hears as "recognize speech". I often motivate the alternative by talking about hooligans discussing going to Brighton (or some other famous beach).

In a study we did of expression in speech, using the same text and different talking head modes of reading it, appropriate emotion achieved a whole grade point's improvement in comprehension. Conversely, inappropriate humour achieved a significant drop in comprehension scores - if you seem to be making fun of your subject matter in a negative way, it demotivates students. However, making your subject fun in a positive way motivates students.

While there were no puns in this study, the moral of the story is to aim for a positive effect, and the "pun not intended" can mitigate an unfortunate or inappropriate interpretation.

David M W Powers

Posted 2016-01-13T16:16:41.537

Reputation: 159

2

This is a pretty simple question, but the other answers complicated, so I'll add a simple one:

  • If you intentionally write a pun and the typical reader will get it, then yes, you don't say anything.

  • If you intentionally write a pun but it's too subtle for the typical reader to notice it, that's when you say "pun intended", so that they don't miss it entirely.

  • If you unintentionally write a pun but you think the reader is likely to notice it, that's when you say "no pun intended", so that they don't think it was deliberate (it might cause misunderstandings).

Mehrdad

Posted 2016-01-13T16:16:41.537

Reputation: 190

2

The use of "pun intended" or "no pun intended" is generally reserved for cases where the pun appears in a sentence where a pun would not necessarily be expected. ie in general conversation or text where the primary intention is not to crack jokes.

In this context, a pun could be construed as being accidental, and using "pun [not] intended" as an aside can be seen as clarifying the text. It makes it clear that the author has spotted the wordplay (and thus avoids potential embarrassment from misunderstanding), and also makes it clear whether it was deliberate or not: if it was intended, then the further implication is that there may be more meaning behind what is being said than first meets the eye. If not intended, then the author is stating that while additional meaning could be read into it, he didn't intend for that to be the case. (however, he probably tacitly approves of it, as if he really didn't want the second meaning to be noticed, he likely would have reworded the whole sentence to avoid the pun entirely).

This is not the same as a typical pun "joke", where the wordplay is always intended, where it is always painfully obvious, and where there is no other context for the text. You won't find "pun [not] intended" used here because it would be redundant. (except possibly in the case of this specific joke).

Spudley

Posted 2016-01-13T16:16:41.537

Reputation: 131

1

Using puns is a form of humour and it is discussable whether it is high or low humour.

When a listener hears a pun, the question is whether or not to take the passage seriously.

Pun intended is usually a signal that there is a joke embedded somewhere in the passage.

Pun not intended signals that the passage should be taken seriously or at the very least noncomedicly

A couple of puns:

Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana

I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy

Peter

Posted 2016-01-13T16:16:41.537

Reputation: 60 039

I would argue that your first pun is atypical because it's a garden path sentence. Actually, wikipedia even has an article for that sentence.

– ryanyuyu – 2016-01-13T20:42:29.500

The garden path article actually mentions "Time flies..." as an example of a pun that's similar to a garden path. – CoderDennis – 2016-01-13T20:56:08.437

1"Pun not intended signals that the passage should be taken seriously or at the very least noncomedicly" I disagree. You get into a lot of trouble by interpreting the English literally. – Sanchises – 2016-01-13T20:58:54.477

1Taking the language seriously is not the same as taking it literally. On the contrary, taking it literally is often the source of comedy. – Seth Jeffery – 2016-01-13T22:29:45.400

1

Another reason for using "(pun intended)" is to highlight puns that are easily missed. The "roots" comment by MichaelT to Stig Hemmer's answer refers to both GoDuck's (assumed) ancestry and to the etymology of the words in GoDuck's comments. Without the "(pun intended)" phrase, it would have been easy to just consider whichever version came to mind first, and not even think there was a second meaning behind the sentence. The comments are reproduced below:

Hardly stolen. Rather English speakers were conquered at least twice and language, especially Norman French, forced upon them. Some estimate 1 of every 4 English words is from French. – GoDucks

@GoDucks your comment score sources (G: Germanic, F: French, E: Old English, N: Norse, L: Latin, A: ancient): GG. GEGEFGGAF, FFF, FEN. GLAGAGGGF. 7 out of 26... about right. ;-) Maybe your roots are showing (pun intended). As to the 'stolen' aspect: Normans vs. Saxons: cow = beef, sheep = mutton, chicken =?. – MichaelT

Lawrence

Posted 2016-01-13T16:16:41.537

Reputation: 4 635

1

Typically, appending the parenthetical "(no pun intended)" is an expression of IRONY.

It acknowledges that there is a pun, that it WAS intended, that the pun itself applies commentary to the content that would otherwise be prejudicial to the content, but is rather relentlessly apropos, but due to the nature of the content, must be disavowed.

dwoz

Posted 2016-01-13T16:16:41.537

Reputation: 173