Field of Science

Crowdsourcing My Data Analysis

I just finished collecting data for a study. Do you want to help analyze it?


What makes a pun funny? If you said "nothing," then you should probably skip this post. But even admirers of puns recognize that while some are sublime, others are ... well, not.

Over the last year, I've been asking people to rate funniness of just over 2300 different puns. (Where did I get 2300 puns? The user-submitted site PunoftheDay. PunoftheDay also has funniness ratings, but I wanted a bit more control over how the puns were rated and who rating them.).

Why care what makes puns funny?

There are three reasons I ran this experiment. I do mostly basic research, and while I believe in its importance and think it's fun, the idea of doing a project I could actually explain to relatives was appealing. I was partly inspired by Zenzi Griffin's 2009 CUNY talk reporting a study she ran on why parents call their kids by the wrong names (typically, calling younger children by elder children's names), work which has now been published in a book chapter.

Plus, I was just interested. I mean: puns!

Finally, I was beginning a line of work on the interpretation of homophones. One of the best-established facts about homophones is that we very rapidly suppress context-irrelevant meanings of words -- in fact, so rapidly that we rarely even notice. If your friend said, "I'm out of money, so I'm going to stop by the bank," would you really even notice considering that bank might mean the side of a river?

A river bank. 
photo: Istvan, creative commons 

A successful pun, on the other hand, requires that at least two meanings be accessed and remain active. In some sense, a pun is homophone processing gone bad. By better understanding puns, I thought I might get some insight into language processing.


As already mentioned, my first step down this road was to collect funniness ratings for a whole bunch of puns. I popped them into a Flash survey, called it Puntastic, and put it on the Games With Words website. The idea was to mine the data and try to find patterns which could then be systematically manipulated in subsequent experiments.

It turns out that there are a lot of ways that 2300 puns can be measured and categorized. So while I have a few ideas I want to try out, no doubt many of the best ones have not occurred to me. Data collection was crowdsourced, and I see no reason why the analyses shouldn't be as well.

I have posted the data on my website. If you have some ideas about what might make one pun funnier than another -- or just want to play around with the data -- you are welcome to it. Please post your findings here.

If you are a researcher and might use the data in an official publication, please contact me directly before beginning analysis (gameswithwords$at* just so there aren't misunderstandings down the line. Failure to get permission to publish analyses of these data may be punished by extremely bad karma and/or nasty looks cast your way at conferences.

The results so far...

Unfortunately for the crowd, I've already done the easiest analyses. The following are based on nearly 800 participants over the age of 13 who listed English as both their native and primary languages (there weren't enough non-native English speakers to conduct meaningful analyses on their responses).

The average was 2.6 stars out of 7 (participants could choose anywhere from 1 to 7 stars, as well as "I don't get it," which was scored as -1 for these analyses), which says something either about the puns I used or the people who rated them.

First I looked at differences between participants to see if I could find types of people who like puns more than others. There was no significant difference in overall ratings by men or women.

I also asked participants if they thought they had good or poor social skills. There was no significant difference there, either.

I also asked them in they had difficulty reading or if they had ever been diagnosed with any psychiatric illnesses, but neither of those factors had any significant effect either (got tired of making graphs, so just trust me on this one).

The effect of age was unclear.

It was the case that the youngest participants produced lower ratings than the older participants (p=.0029), which was significant even after a conservative Bonferroni correction for 15 possible pairwise comparisons (alpha=.0033). However, the 10-19 year-olds' ratings were also significantly lower than the 20-29 year-olds' (p=.0014) and the 30-39 year-olds' (p=.0008), but obviously this was not true of the 40-49 year-olds' or 50-59 year-olds' ratings. So it's not clear what to make of that. Given that the overall effect size was small and that this is an exploratory analysis, I wouldn't make much of the effect without corroboration from an independent data set.

The funniest puns

The only factor I've looked at so far that might explain pun funniness is the length of the joke. I considered only the 2238 puns for which I had at least 5 ratings (which was most of them). I asked whether there might be a relationship between the length of the pun and how funny it was. I could imagine this going either way, with concise jokes being favored (short and sweet) or long jokes having a better lead-up (the shaggy dog effect). In fact, the correlation between pun ratings and length in terms of number of characters (r=.05) or in terms of number of words (r=.05) were both so small I didn't bother to do significance tests.

I broke up the puns into five groups according to length to see if maybe there was a bimodal effect (shortest and longest jokes are funniest) or a Goldilocks effect (average-length jokes are best). There wasn't.

In short, I can't tell you anything about what makes some people like puns more than others, or why people like some puns more than others. What I can tell you is which puns people did or didn't like. Here are the top 5 and bottom 5 puns:

1. He didn't tell his mother that he ate some glue. His lips were sealed.
2. Cartoonist found dead in home. Details are sketchy.
3. Biologists have recently produced immortal frogs by removing their vocal cords. They can't croak.
4. The frustrated cannibal threw up his hands.
5. Can Napoleon return to his place of birth? Of Corsican.
2234. The Egyptian cinema usherette sold religious icons in the daytime. Sometimes she got confused and called out, 'Get your choc isis here!'
2235. Polly the senator's parrot swallowed a watch.
2236. Two pilgrims were left behind after their diagnostic test came back positive.
2237. In a baseball season, a pitcher is worth a thousands blurs.
2238. He said, "Hones', that is the truth', but I knew elide.

Ten points to anyone who can even figure out what those five puns are about. Mostly participants rated this as "I don't get it."

BTW Please don't take from this discussion that there hasn't been any serious studies of puns. There have been a number, going back at least as far as Sapir of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, who wrote a paper on "Two Navaho Puns." There is a well-known linguistics paper by Zwicky & Zwicky and at least one computer model that generates its own puns. However, I know a lot less about this literature than I would like to, so if there are any experts in the audience, please feel free to send me links.


Tim said...

You should try ranking them by the lowest frequency word that is present (or the lowest frequency of the implied homophone, if you can easily figure that out). I don't get most of the worst ones, probably because I don't know the words.

(yes, I know I should be working on my talk instead of reading this...)

GamesWithWords said...

I should be writing a paper instead of following your suggestion, but we all have our weaknesses.

I wrote a set of functions in R that would identify the maximum, minimum, mean and median word frequencies for all the words in any given pun. I used a frequency corpus based on 10 months of AP newswires -- not the best corpus, but it's what I had available. I believe there are some better tools available out there, so pointers in the right direction are also appreciated. (I know there are tools for frequency analyses; what I want are tools with access to better frequency databases.) Since the puns are not part-of-speech-tagged, I used raw frequencies of surface forms (not lemmas).

Pearson product-moment correlations with funniness
r p
max -.01 .49
min -.03 .11
mean -.02 .33
median .02 .38

In other words, none of these factors correlated significantly with funniness. A better test would have been, as you say, to look at the lexical frequency of the puns themselves, but I don't have the puns tagged (anyone who wants to do so will be much appreciated!). What we probably want is the frequency of the two *meanings*, which is probably not available (SemCor and other meaning-tagged corpora are too small). Also, many puns involve part-homophones, so we need to identify the target word and its frequency.

So lots of reasons why this wasn't likely to work, but it would have been nice if it did.

Michael B. said...

Very interesting data set! While you say that the average rating for males/females is the same, did you see a difference in particular types of puns that are funny to males v. females?

Will said...

I believe the last one depends on the similarity between "elide"/"he lied", where elide means to leave out letters, as the speaker does in the word "hones'".

The fifth to last one refers to what I think is a product sold in the UK known as "choc ices" which are like chocolate popsicles.

The other ones remain a complete mystery to me.

Anonymous said...

The fourth one has to do with the saying "a picture (pitcher) is worth a thousand words (blurs, a weak rhyme)."

I'm stumped as to numbers 2235 and 2236.

Ara said...

That is a good suggestion Tim because the problem with puns is that if the vocabulary doesn't stand up it's instantly lame.

JV1987 said...

One possibility that occurs to me is the subject matter: the top 5 all discuss distinctly emotive things (death, birth, vomiting up a limb, etc). It would be good to see the top 10/20.

Trey said...

2238 is the funniest of the whole bunch

Shana said...

2236. Two pilgrims were left behind after their diagnostic test came back positive.

Two pilgrims were tested and found as di- agnostic, hence they were left behind and not allowed to come with the religious folk.

EternalAmbiguity said...

Of the five "bad" puns, the only one I "got" was the one about the pitcher.

After reading Shana's statement I get the one about the pilgrims, but I didn't initially. Not really sure why, but splitting diagnostic to "di-agnostic" didn't occur to me at all. Probably means more about me than about the pun.

WriterOfMinds said...

For me personally, I think part of what makes a pun funny (or at least delightful ... I don't think I laugh at puns, exactly) is its perceived cleverness. So for example, a pun like this:

"The town's residents just couldn't bear the visiting grizzly."

isn't funny, because it's too obvious, and I've heard it before I don't know how many times. But I really enjoyed this one, which came up in a conversation about people getting sick:

"I opened the window and in flew Enza."

I also like this one:

"We need to take all the bad chemistry jokes and barium." (bury 'em)

A quality like "cleverness" is really hard to measure, but maybe as a start, one could look at the number of syllables used to form the pun ... since inventing a pun in which many syllables express a double meaning is probably harder ... and see if there's any connection between that and funniness. One could also consider how unique a pun is as compared to others in the database (there are probably a ton of "bear" puns).

TRaja Setlur said...

The one I rate among the highest in intellectual level needed to understand is what the British general telegraphed after he captured Sindh province - Peccavi (latin for I have sinned)

Tim said...

Also years later, but still worth a comment...
Like WriterOfMinds, I am attracted by the perceived cleverness of a pun, which might depend on the unexpected use of technical or esoteric language. Thus, any pun referring to elision (highbrow) while eliding 'Honey' to 'Hon' (lowbrow) is going to be funny to me. The cleverness and unexpectedness of this is what makes it successful for some, though (apparently quite) unsuccessful to others.
Fortunately for me and unfortunately for most others, a similar 'logic' is at play in the one about the pilgrims, which makes a play on both pilgrim (a classic car and a religious traveler) and di/agnostic (as explained by Shana above), which works marvelously.
PS: I love the fact that Will was explaining a pun about elision to a Blogger audience at 12:03 on Christmas eve.

Pirate John 'n Angel Jen said...

You asked subjects about social comfort ability but only compared them m/f. The self selection of folks willing to read puns is in play. The comparison needs to be to the general population when answering the same question and, I postulate, 70% of the general population will rate themselves as above average in social skills (because our fellow humans are egocentric liars. Not us, the rest of them, I mean. We're ok.)