Why Do Puns Make for Good Writing?


The following is a condensed version of a presentation I gave to a Michigan Reading Association conference on the place of humor in children’s reading and writing…


We like folks who make us laugh. Jokes bring us together as we tease or lampoon a political party, rival team or boss. Humor can break tension with a pointed, well-placed remark. Laughing even has some reputed effects on our immune system and general health. But beyond all that, humor can be the gateway to a life-long love of literature for our children.

It’s important to encourage a sense of humor in the children we raise or impact as teachers, librarians and other virtual family members. This is not a difficult task since kids are already wired for humor in their early development. For example, between the ages of two and five children chortle at the misuse of familiar objects, misnamed things, sounds of words and strange word combinationsPhysical humor and prat-falls are real knee slappers. Basically, youngsters are noticing the differences between the real world they know and expect and variations from it. The cognitive dissonance strikes their funny bone.

The next step, starting at approximately six years, is really interesting. This is the stage Piaget describes as ‘concrete operational thinking’ in which children begin to realize abstract concepts. The world is no longer limited to only what they can see and touch. Mathematically, 6 is not just 6 apples. It can be 2 sets of 3 anythings. Or 3 sets of 2 anythings. And in the realm of language, children realize words can have more than one meaning…enter riddles and puns. As parents and teachers, we may not find these incursions into the world of double meaning especially laughable or humorous. But the child’s job at this stage is to develop awareness that all is not what it seems on the surface. Thankfully, most kids eventually outgrow riddles and puns except for those of us who suffer from a permanent case of arrested development. The skills encouraged and gained during this developmental stage can have long-ranging implications in the same way that an introduction to music, art and sports at an early age can lead to life-long pursuits if not professional careers.

Here are some of the take-aways from childhood riddles and puns: They’re discovering new words and concepts because if they ‘don’t get it’ at first, they may have to ask for new information. More importantly they’re enjoying the intellectual challenge of linking two pieces of information seemingly unrelated. That’s power. That’s mastery in a world where teachers and grown-ups have all the answers and therefore, control. It’s a heady experience to get a grown-up to say, “I give up.” And finally, a young riddler can earn social coin the way other children get strokes for grades and musical or athletic talent.

In fostering a sense of humor the educational objective is to develop ‘divergent’ as opposed to ‘convergent’ thinking. We want children to look for and expect to find alternative meanings behind what they hear and see. This is extremely important for science, the arts and business as we ask future generations to think creatively in a rapidly changing technological world.

All this from riddles and puns?  Perhaps. My daughter taught English in China for a year. She found a strong bias toward uniformity and conformity in thinking among her students. If the class was asked to offer an opinion, everyone waited until one brave person offered an idea whereupon they all chimed in in agreement. Sure and true answers were learned and repeated. Open-ended questions were a way to lose face if the answer was deemed incorrect.

Applied knowledge and relational thinking should be an educational goal for us. Teaching children to play with words is a way to show them that not all words are absolutely, literally true in every instance; that we should be, need to be, on the alert for secondary meaning, the distaff of the obvious. Which of course is the basis of creative writing, poetry, fiction. We’re asking kids to juxtapose ideas and images that wouldn’t normally go together when we challenge them with humor on the way to literary arts…the beauty of the written word follows from the joy of word play.


  •  Here’s a humorous story that I wrote for Mother Earth News on this topic…

Help for the Humor Deprived

going for the laugh

 “Hey, Rube, look at that man burning leaves,” I said, squatting to my son’s eye level and pointing to the fire that almost singed an above-ground swimming pool. “What’s wrong with this picture?”

My claim to immortality paused, thought. “He’s too close.”

“What might happen?” I prompted.

“Burn a hole.”


“Water’ll go all over the fire.” Rube chortled and clapped his hands.

“Hey, buddy,” I shouted, “My son likes your fire extinguisher.”

The leaf-burner studied his fire for a moment. Then he grinned. “Actually, I was trying a new way to heat the pool.”

There was a man after my own heart – a man with a sense of humor. And that’s exactly what I wanted to teach my son – to see the funny side of life. I never had any help as a kid. Everything I learned about whimsy, I learned the hard way – on my own. But my son was going to have it easy. I was going to teach him the joy of jokes the way some people teach their children to build a log cabin – step by step.

One of the first lessons was how to size up an audience. We were getting a pre-school physical when the pediatric nurse strapped a blood pressure cuff on my arm to show Rube that it wouldn’t hurt. I took the occasion to rub her wrist. “You’ll have to excuse me,” I said. “I’m just not feeling myself today.”

“Mr. Sandwich,” the nurse sniffed as she pulled herself to the full height of her indignation and marched out of the room.

“Now we know not to waste good jokes on her,” I explained to my son. “She was probably a deprived child. I bet her parents never played a joke on her or asked her riddles or even made puns.” I sighed. “There but for the grace of God go you.”

I remember the first time I encountered comically deprived children. I had just died – as us comedians refer to a joke that bombs – at my friend’s house, in front of his parents and grandparents. It was the old gag about why we put angels on top of Christmas trees. You know the one about Santa being all stressed out because the reindeer had hoof and mouth disease, and the elves were on strike, and Mrs. Claus had the flu when an angel bounced into the toy shop with a Christmas tree and asked, “Where would you like me to stick this, Santa?”

Everyone just stared at me. I quickly added, “So, from that day to this, the angel sits on top of the Christmas tree.”


You can’t blame the kids in that situation. They didn’t know any better. It’s the parent’s responsibility to introduce their children to the finer nuances of humor in our culture. Somebody needs to spend quality time with those kids loosening them up to the possibilities of word play, the surprise of the unexpected; not to mention the joy of a roomful of people groaning in unison.         

You can imagine my delight in another class-clown in the making when Rube came home from the first day of school and announced, “It’s a tough house, Dad.”

“And how’s your teacher.”

“Too damned sweet.”

“I prefer that you don’t use that word.”

“Okay. She’s too damned nice.”

My efforts were paying off. But like a good coach, I looked for every opportunity to challenge my star prospect. For example, one day at the beach, a live Barbie doll lay on her see-through air mattress in the shallow water. What caught my eye was the turquoise dog’s leash – I’m serious now, humor is not a laughing matter – that trailed from her hand straight into the lake. I nudged Rube and rolled my eyes at the floating princess.

“What’s wrong with this picture?”

“She’s probably using it like an anchor rope, tied to a rock or something,” he offered.

“Come on, you can do better than that,” I coaxed.

Rube’s eyes started to dance. “Maybe she’s taking her catfish for a walk?”

I shrugged. “Not bad. Try again.”

Rube looked at me, grinned.

“Go for it.”

“Excuse me, lady,” my son said. “In case you didn’t realize… your dog’s been underwater for a long time.”

Some months later shopping for Christmas ornaments, my son and I priced a set of colored lights.

“Let’s see,” I calculated, “$9.95 plus six percent for tax brings it to…”

“Tacks?” Rube inquired. “What do you need tacks for? Don’t you just loop the lights over the branches?”

I stopped. Studied my son. “Tax, as in income tax. Only this is a sales…” That’s when I caught the corner of his mouth twitching. He got me. He had me going. For a person who sees life as a stage and every person out there as an audience, you have to admit my son did me proud. He’s got the eye, the timing – whatever you want to call it.

When it was our turn at the register, the clerk checked my ID.

“James Sandwich,” he read aloud. “Interesting name. Ever think of working in a deli?”

I grimaced. How rude – taking liberties with my name.

“And what’s your son’s name? Ham? HamSandwich?”

“No,” Rube replied, “my name’s Reuben…”

My son stopped. Stared at me for a long time. He hasn’t told a joke since. And he was coming along so fine.