|Nancy Salomon was recently asked about puns in crossword puzzles and shared her answers on the cruciverb-l list:
Q: Puns. I have enjoyed them as a solver. Now as a constructor, I m cautious about staying in bounds& on the other hand, I don t want to be boring!
Are there any general rules written or understood as to how puns are used in crossword puzzles?
A: I'll give you a few general rules regarding puns off the top of my head. One of these rules answers a later question of yours which I've therefore deleted. One caution--any rule I can come up with will be broken at times. But, by and large:
1) Don't mix exact homophones with inexact ones. Also, if some of your puns are close to exact homophones, others shouldn't be really far out and vice versa.
2) All the base phrases upon which you're punning must be VERY common. If the solver can't figure out the base phrase, any "aha" is kaput.
3) As you intuited, the entries themselves containing the puns are usually not "real." What they do need is what's called surface sense. Most editors would like to have you clue the punned entries without relation to the base phrase. Therefore, the entries need to make some kind of sense, even if it's a silly sense. In the example below (point 4), I used the sample entry HOARSE FLY as opposed to HOARSE COLLAR or HOARSE SHOE. The latter two have no surface sense that I can detect. I don't know how one would clue them. HOARSE FLY on the other hand has a silly sense that makes it clueable--[Pest with a blunted buzz?] or some such.
4) It's usually not enough to just come up with a pun theme in which there is nothing to tie the entries together. That tie can be quite different, depending on the puzzle. Sometimes, the link is the word being punned. All animals (HOARSE FLY and the like or BEAR NAKED LADIES and such, but not a mixture of the two, e.g.). Sometimes the link is tied to the entire phrase such as, say, weather forecasts. Sometimes the link is a common sound change such as in a recent NYT puzzle where LUNCH, PUNCH, and HUNCH became LAUNCH, PAUNCH, and HAUNCH. The same thing can be done with letter deletion or letter substitution as well as letter addition.
5) Some puns are just too far away phonetically from their base phrases to be effective. Others, with an equal number of letter changes work to perfection. Merl once wrote elegantly on the subject. I'm hoping maybe he'll help me out here. He's the numero uno pun expert. If any of the advice he gives contradicts mine, just ignore me. I'm not even close to being in the same league.
Q: What are some examples of the better puns, and some examples which editors would consider marginal?
A: I think (hope) this is covered above. Ideally a pun should conjure up a vivid mental image and have some humor value. That's what editors look for along with a tight, consistent theme. The most common flaws I see in rookie pun puzzles are all covered above. Take the absense of surface sense. If there's no surface sense, as with HOARSE COLLAR, then there's no mental image and no humor.
Q: Are puns as acceptable for fill as they are for use as the basis of a theme? When used as fill, need they relate to anything around them?
A: No. A pun used as fill will get you an instant rejection. Your fill entries must be straight. Sometimes a clue can be a bit punny, but if the fill entry isn't "real" it will look to the editor and the solver as if you've "cheated."