How to get your class punning

English is unimaginably flexible. And its appetite for puns seems insatiable. As does that of English speakers.

There’s a real art to punning. Ingenuity. The double meaning. Playing with connotations. Like this one (very teacher nerdy, I know):

What happened when Past, Present and Future walked into a bar? (answer at the very bottom)

And in my opinion puns are inextricably linked to the very nature of the language and the people who speak it. For example, my native language, Polish, is much less suited to punning. And we’re less skilled at it.

Like any other language skill, then, punning can, and I think should, be taught. I still remember the first few times (still not a good punster, though, I must admit) that I manage to come out with a pun, making my English mates laugh their heads off. The sense of language achievement was great.

So why not start your next class with a pun? Or even better: 24 nerdy puns that are bound to make you chuckle (and your students too, as soon as they realise the subtlety of the double meanings that make those plays on words funny).

Some reasons why I think the activity described below is actually useful and productive, apart from being fun:

  • understanding puns is a sign of high proficiency in the language
  • discovering the double meaning pushes students to think beyond what they already know
  • puns have a much higher surrender value than many obscure things course books make us teach our students (when was the last time you used, or heard somebody else using, the future perfect continuous?)
  • being inextricably linked to the language, puns bring you a step closer to understanding the way English speaking people are
  • the activity is motivating and engaging
  • solving the meaning of the pun or creating your own, gives a real sense of achievement
  • a breath of fresh air
  • writing your own pun can be very challenging, and a great exercise in language use
  • can make students more aware of: homonyms, homophones, the double meaning
  • gives students a chance to play and experiment with the language
  • forces them to think outside the box and to be creative
  • gives the students ownership over the language

A running order for a simple activity:

  1. Put the beginning of any of the 24 nerdy puns on the board. For example:

2. Ask the students to discuss the questions in groups/pairs. Tell them to be as creative as possible.

3. Feedback as a class – choose the funniest/most bizarre answer.

4. Show them the answer (I wouldn’t expect even quiet chuckles at this point – unless the class is quite advanced – but rather befuddled looks, which probably say: my teacher’s a bit weird…):

5. Put sts in pairs again. Ask them to discuss:

  • What was or felt tense in the bar? (the atmosphere)
  • What are Past, Present and Future in English? (tenses; technically Future is not, but let’s not split hairs over it, shall we?)
  • Is tense a noun or an adjective? Can it be both? (yes it can, it’s a homonym)
  • What is the double meaning of the word: tense?
  • How is the double meaning used to make the answer: “It was tense” funny?

6. Feedback on the questions as a class.

7. Elicit and clarify the terms: “play on words = puns”, and “to pun”

8. Do one or two more puns following steps 1 – 6.

9. Discuss:

  • Do puns exist in your own language?
  • Do you find them funny?
  • Why might it be useful and important to understand puns in English?

10. Students write their own puns (pairs or individually). If you think they’re not strong enough, scaffold the writing:

  • give beginnings or endings of a few puns – the students only recreate the missing parts
  • do a sentence extension, where the students only need to put in the correct grammar

11. Vote for the best pun!

The answer to : What happened when Past, Present and Future walked into a bar?

It was tense.
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