What is wordplay? 15 Definitions & Examples of Wordplay Techniques in English Literature

What is wordplay? 15 Definitions & Examples of Wordplay Techniques in English Literature

Are you working with young writers? Planning a lesson on how to use clever wordplay in creative writing? As students matriculate throughout their academic careers, it is important that they learn how to construct text that can have multiple meanings or how to use verbal wit to evoke humorous, melancholic or joyful emotions. So, introduce wordplay to your class or homeschooled children! If you’re unsure where to start, that’s okay! This article reviews what wordplay is and 15 literary devices for creative writing, poetry, and everyday conversation.

In this article:

What is wordplay?

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Wordplay can be defined as the practice of using, words, phrases and literary devices to evoke a figurative meaning rather than a literal meaning. Wordplay can include the use of alliteration, for instance. Or it can incorporate other literary techniques such as similes, kennings, or puns! In a nutshell, wordplay can be found in poetry or prose and it is not defined by a specific word, but rather how the writer, poet, or speaker uses words to evoke multiple meanings, draw attention to their subject, or provide tongue twisters for the audience to enjoy.

15 Types of Wordplay Found in English Literature

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There are many examples of wordplay in the English language. Share the following forms of wordplay with your students to inspire their future literary works.

  1. Alliteration
  2. Assonance
  3. Consonance
  4. Double Entendre
  5. Idiom
  6. Kenning
  7. Onomatopoeia
  8. Oxymoron
  9. Malapropisms
  10. Metaphor
  11. Mondegreen
  12. Portmanteau
  13. Pun
  14. Simile
  15. Tautogram

Alliteration

Alliteration occurs when a sentence has repeating consonant sounds that follow one another. Alliteration is a common play on words that relies on similar sounds rather than evoking double meaning.

Example: Wendy went towards the west corridor with a wicked smile across her wounded face.

Assonance

In the English language, assonance is a literary device that can used to match the vowel sounds in words, often creating a rhyming effect.

Example: The mule is too cool to go to school.

Consonance

In contrast to assonance, consonance is a type of wordplay that occurs when writers or speakers match the consonant sounds in words. It is worth noting that sentences that contain consonance may also use alliteration.

Example: Tom’s tomatoes were toasted and topped with coarse salt.

Double Entendre

Double entendre is a common play on words that evokes two meanings, usually with a more tongue-in-cheek undertone to the secondary meaning. Double entendre phrases are great examples of wordplay because they have both a literal and figurative meaning. However, due to the nature of double entendres, discussions around their literary uses may be more well suited for high school or college students.

Idiom

An idiom can be identified in a common phrase that has a figurative or more abstract meaning rather than a literal meaning.

Example: Smartphones are the best thing since sliced bread.

Kenning

Have you heard of a kenning? It is a type of metaphor that is usually comprised of two or more words that are used to describe an object or a person. This literary device is a popular form of wordplay that is present in many Old English texts, like Beowulf, for instance.

Example:

  • Flesh bag = body
  • Water carriage = boat or ship
  • Sky lamp = sun
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Onomatopoeia

Pop! Boom! Beep! Ping! Onomatopoeias are words that sound similar to what they mean. As a literary technique, onomatopoeias can be used to describe sounds in poetry and prose.

Example: Boom! Crash! Clatter! The porcelain dishes crashed against the kitchen tile.

Oxymoron

Oxymorons are written or spoken phrases that include a word blend or two contradictory words. This type of wordplay can be used to add a comic effect or melancholic tone to a piece of literature.

Example:

  • Bittersweet
  • Disgusting Beauty
  • Terrible Joy
  • Perfect Imperfections

Malapropism

Sometimes wordplay goes awry like in instances of malapropism – which occurs when an incorrect word or phrase is used, evoking new meaning or confusion into a sentence.

Example: She is the pineapple of success.

In that phrase, pinnacle was substituted for pineapple; resulting in a nonsensical sentence that is sure to cause confusion.

Metaphor

Talented writers and speakers use metaphors all the time. After all, a metaphor is a figure of speech that draws a comparison between two things. Metaphors can be used to draw attention to a subject, clarify the vital importance of something, or add a bit of drama or exaggeration to a piece of writing.

Example: Michigan is a winter wonderland.

In this sentence, the state of Michigan is being compared to a winter oasis because of its long and extremely cold autumn and winter seasons.

Mondegreen

Have you ever misheard or misunderstood a phrase, leaving you with a new meaning entirely? That’s a mondegreen! Mondegreens happen often in conversations and can be extremely common with song lyrics of poetry.

Example: Mishearing lyrics to The Beatles’ song Strawberry Fields Forever and saying “Let me take the crown. ‘Cause I’m going to strawberry hills” instead of saying the correct lyrics which are “Let me take you down. ‘Cause I’m going to strawberry fields.”

Portmanteau

A portmanteau blends two words together to form one word that carries two different meanings. Portmanteaus can be found in ordinary language – just look at words like motel, smog and spork.

Example:

  • Cosplay = costume + roleplay
  • Edutainment = educational + entertainment
  • Newscast = news + broadcast
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Pun

Puns are used by writers, speakers, comedians, and contemporary poets alike; making them one of the most common forms of wordplay in the English language. In a nutshell, puns are jokes that use homophones in witty ways.

Example: That cheese doesn’t belong to you, Nathan – it’s nacho cheese.

Simile

Similar to a metaphor, a simile is a figure of speech that compares two things. Similes can be used in conversation, spoken poetry, or written prose.

Example: Sebastian was as sly as a fox.

Tautogram

A tautogram is a literary technique that uses words that begin with the same letter to build sentences. It is similar to alliteration, with the key difference being that tautograms do no require that the words follow any particular sound or phonetic pattern.

Example: Willow wallowed while weaving wicker wares.