Puns in Swifties typically involve both semantic and phonological features. In Swifties, the unexpected ending relates back to the stem of the pun conceptually but is not essential to the literal meaning of the sentence. Swifties' humor arises from the unexpected resolution of the disparate references.
The pun achieves its humor by violating expectations, often drawing together interpretations from different references to create a surprise connection (Chiaro, 1992). The "Tom Swifty" (Israel, 1995) is a concise form of language play that capitalizes on puns.
But frequently the pun occurs in the verb, and there may not be an adverb at all. Strictly speaking such puns are not Tom Swifties, but they are generally included in the term. Here are some examples:
"My garden needs another layer of mulch," Tom repeated.
"You must be my host," Tom guessed.
Tom Swifties use Morphology in the Pun: The morphology of a word - its internal structure - forms the pun in some advanced Swifties. To understand the pun, break the word into morphemes (smaller units of meaning). For example, "propaganda" = "propa" (proper) + "ganda" (gander).
"This is the real male goose," said Tom, producing the propaganda."
adverbial phrase puns: "Oops! There goes my hat!" said Tom off the top of his head."
-ly adverb puns: "I only have diamonds, clubs and spades," sighed Tom heartlessly.
There are four common forms of Tom Swifties, depending on whether the pun is expressed as
An adverb phrase,
The morphology of a word,
The verb itself.
Tom Swifties are a type of Wellerism. They fall broadly into four categories, but they all work on the same principle which can be seen in the examples.
Quite probably, the first Tom Swifty was devised shortly after the publication of the first Tom Swift book, giving almost 100 years of humor. Tom Swifties have often been used by grammar teachers to reinforce the adverb as a part of speech and by writing teachers to illustrate the humorous effect of excessive adverb use or as a creative exercise.
Tom Swifties are a special kind of pun, e.g.: "I need a pencil sharpener," said Tom bluntly. "Oops! There goes my hat!" said Tom off the top of his head. "I can no longer hear anything," said Tom deftly. "I have a split personality," said Tom, being frank. "This must be an aerobics class," Tom worked out.
Tom Swifties take their name from Tom Swift, a boy's adventure hero created by the prolific American writer Edward L. Stratemeyer. Under the pseudonym Victor Appleton, he published a series of books featuring the young Tom Swift. Tom Swift rarely passed a remark without a qualifying adverb as "Tom added eagerly" or "Tom said jokingly". They are otherwise known as adverbial puns. The only rule is that the adverbs end in "-ly". The play on words came to be known by the term Tom Swifty. Jim Wegryn writes that they are correctly known as "Tom Swiftlies" because of the overuse of adverbs ending in "ly."