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Finding comedy in errors : evaluating intentional ambiguity in children's puns Wilson, Kelsey


Why do we laugh (or groan) at puns? Humour serves as a fascinating topic of study within the field of cognitive linguistics due to the manipulation of form-meaning pairs that create tension and ambiguity. This project explores the dynamic between the social, pragmatic, phonological, syntactic and semantic components of puns to provide insight into these complexities and how they reflect on typical, rather than creative language. By focusing on puns from children’s riddle and joke books, the examples used offer especially contrived constructions to better convey the necessary ambiguity to a younger audience, clearly revealing important elements used in this type of wordplay. This project seeks to identify the minimal conditions necessary for a pun to be successful; that is, to force a phonological ambiguity that can be resolved through the semantic elements of the joke. In doing so, this type of wordplay draws attention to our ability to process and reconcile ambiguity with relative ease, even within novel and creative language use. The first chapter provides a brief overview of the relevant scholarship in humour studies, beginning with Raskin’s (1985) foundational Script-based Semantic Theory of Humour and including other texts integral to my research (e.g., Coulson 2001, Giora 2003, Partington 2009, Tobin 2018). In addition to providing a theoretical framework for approaching my examples, this chapter summarizes various definitions of puns and illuminates the lack of a unified definition within humour research. The second chapter explores the benefits of using wordplay to help develop complex language use in children by introducing them to polysemy and homophony in creative contexts, which encourage interaction with these concepts. The final chapter outlines three conditions required for puns to be successful: a context setting up multiple semantic frames, a phonologically ambiguous word or phrase that forces reinterpretation of the sentence, and the management and subversion of social and pragmatic expectations in the reader.

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