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What is a Rebus?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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A rebus can be a method of helping involve young children in the act of reading, as well as two types of puzzle in which letters, words, and pictures are combined to convey a phrase or sentence. A rebus is a variation on a pun. In a pun, the sound and/or meaning of two words is made into a play on words. In a rebus, the pun is created by using pictures to evoke a sound that is identical or similar to a word or word part.

The Rebus in Reading. The rebus offers a way to enable children to help read a story before they can decipher print. In this type of story, a picture of, say, an apple, a cat, or a bird – some simple object that the child can identify and name – is substituted for the word, so the child can “read” that part of the story.

Rebus Equations. Often found in children’s pastime and puzzle books, one form of a rebus appears in an equation form. In this kind of rebus, you will find examples like: F + [picture of an ear] =. You add the sound characteristically made by the letter F to the sound of the word ear to make the word fear.

Notice that this kind of rebus focuses on the sound of the word, rather than the spelling. So if you saw F + [picture of an eye] =, you would be intended to gather fie, not feye – which is not an English word. Benjamin Franklin used this kind of writing, without the plus and minus signs, in his brief article, “The Art of Making Money Plenty in Every Man’s Pocket.”

In rebus puzzles, it is common to find

  • 8 for ate or a syllable with that sound
  • 4 for for, and
  • 2 for to or too.

So, you can have:

  • gr + 8 = great
  • 4 + T = fort
  • 2 + L = tool

To this extent, the rebus has some common ground with texting language, also known as txt or txtspk, but while texting language employs these devices to save space when communicating on, for example, mobile phones, rebuses use them for entertainment.

Other popular rebus pictures include:

  • a honey bee for the sound /be/
  • a hand saw for the sound /saw/
  • a knot in a rope for the sound /not/
  • a sheep for the sound /ewe/
  • an open food can for the sound /can/
  • R for the sound /are/

Rebus Relations. Besides the puzzles, there are rebuses that convey meanings by the way words are arranged on the page.


shows the phrase “head over heels.”


means “sailing on the seven seas.”

This is a way that rebuses are enjoyed after childhood is past.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Language & Humanities, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By Clairdelune — On May 11, 2011

Those of us who are senior citizens could benefit from exercising our brains more to keep them as sharp and healthy as possible. Doing rebus puzzles on a consistent basis is a way to help avoid dementia and general memory loss. Getting together with a group would make it even more fun and healthy. Books full of rebus puzzles and other word puzzles are available in book stores.

By Misscoco — On May 09, 2011

@Thecloser - You are so right. Rebus puzzles are very useful ways for young children and older children to exercise their brains and practice "thinking outside the box." These skills will serve them well in the future.

In addition, very young children who "read" rebus stories can learn some important pre-reading skills,such as sound recognition,comprehension, and new vocabulary.

By TheCloser — On May 02, 2011

These were quite fun and creative when I was in school. My favorite was a game of flashcards with rebus brain teasers on them that we had to decode to beat other teams. It helped a lot with collective problem solving.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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