EDITORS: Gibbs, Raymond W., Jr.; Colston, Herbert L.
TITLE: Irony in Language and Thought
SUBTITLE: A Cognitive Science Reader
PUBLISHER: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Ksenia M. Shilikhina, Associate Professor of Linguistics, Department of Romance
and Germanic Philology, Voronezh State University
This volume is a collection of papers devoted to the functioning of verbal and
situational irony with more attention to the former. The volume presents both
theoretical and empirical research on irony. The book is addressed to scholars
studying irony from linguistic, psychological, and cognitive perspectives.
The 24 papers are grouped into 7 parts. Part I ''A Brief History of Irony'' serves
as an introduction. The editors give a short overview of the papers included in
the following parts and show that what unites these writings into a single
volume is the idea that irony is not just a simple negation of what is said.
Understanding irony as an implicit negation of what is said dates back to Greek
philosophers, but today this point of view is considered to be
oversimplification. Irony as a mode of communication is a lot more complicated
than previously thought. The editors claim that the papers included in the
volume present irony as a mode of thinking about human experience.
Part II ''Theories of Irony'' consists of 5 papers presenting modern theoretical
approaches to irony ranging from the Pretense theory of irony developed by
Herbert H. Clark and Richard J. Gerrig, to viewing irony as relevant
inappropriateness as suggested by Salvatore Attardo. The other theories
presented in Part I are the Allusional pretence theory introduced to the readers
by Sachi Kumon-Nakamura, Sam Glucksberg, and Mary Brown, and irony as echoic
mention presented in the paper by Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber. The papers are
organized in the chronological order of their appearance and the reader can
trace the development of modern theorizing on irony. The discussion of different
theoretical frameworks in Attardo's paper ''Irony as Relevant Inappropriateness''
shows that all theories of irony continue to develop and compete with each other.
Different theoretical approaches are tested experimentally in Herbert L.
Colston's paper ''On Necessary Conditions for Verbal Irony Comprehension''. The
results of the experiments allow one to define major pragmatic conditions that
allow ironic interpretation of utterances.
Part III focuses on the role of context in irony comprehension. The six papers
included in Part III present the results of experimental studies of irony
There has been a long debate whether ironic statements require one or two stages
of comprehension, Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr. takes the side of those who assume that
people do not process such utterances literally.
Another experimental study of irony comprehension is described in Rachel Giora
and Ofer Fein's paper ''Irony: Context and Salience''. The authors show how
salience influences ironic utterances processing: it is not literal or ironic
meaning that is of importance. It is the degree of salience that matters in the
processing of meaning. Salient meanings (whether literal or ironic) are
processed first and they do not depend on contextual information.
Skye McDonald's paper ''Neuropsychological Studies of Sarcasm'' is focused upon
comprehension of sarcasm by people with acquired brain damage. The study shows
what aspects of the sarcasm processing and which inferential operations become
difficult for patients with two different types of brain damage: traumatic brain
injury and damage to the right hemisphere.
The paper ''Discourse Factors That Influence Online Reading of Metaphor and
Irony'' by Penny M. Pexman, Todd R. Ferretti, and Albert N.Katz is another
example of experimental study of irony. The authors discuss discourse factors
that influence irony comprehension in online reading.
''Obligatory Processing of the Literal Meaning of Ironic Utterances: Further
Evidence'' by John Schwoebel, Shelly Dews, Ellen Winner, and Kavitha Srinivas
test the hypothesis ''that the literal meaning of an ironic utterance is
activated during comprehension and a) slows the processing of the key ironic
portion of the utterance (literal activation hypothesis), and b) slows the
processing of the literal portion of the utterance that follows (the spillover
hypothesis)''. The findings support the former hypothesis and do not give
evidence in favor for the latter.
In the paper ''Irony: Negation, Echo, and Metarepresentation'', Carmen Curcó
compares Sperber and Wilson's echoic theory of irony to Giora's theory of irony
as a form of indirect negation. Both theories are tested against the question of
what cognitive abilities are required for verbal irony comprehension. Curcó
concludes that Sperber and Wilson's echoic theory of irony is a better
explanation of the nature of verbal irony than Giora's, though it also requires
Papers included in Part IV explore social functions of irony trying to answer
the question why speakers choose this particular way of communication even at
the risk of misunderstanding. In their paper ''Why Not Say It Directly? The
Social Functions of Irony'', Shelly Dews, Joan Kaplan, and Ellen Winner suggest
that by using irony the speaker mitigates criticism. Another explanation is
offered in Herbert L. Colston's paper ''Salting a Wound or Sugaring a Pill: The
Pragmatic Functions of Ironic Criticism''. The main argument of this paper is
that irony can be used for the purpose of enhancing criticism.
Using recorded conversations, Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr. investigates how irony
functions in talk among friends. The analysis shows that irony is used in
different forms and conveys different pragmatic meanings.
Irony as a communicative strategy is studied by Luigi Anolli, Rita Ciceri, and
Maria Giaele Infantino in their paper ''From ''Blame by Praise'' to ''Praise by
Blame'': Analysis of Vocal Patterns in Ironic Communication''. As the title
suggests, the article focuses on intonation. Different ironic patterns were
observed in the cooperation context and in the conflict context. Thus, the voice
patterns can become the signals of a particular ironic strategy.
The last paper ''Responding to Irony in Different Contexts: On Cognition on
Conversation'' by Helga Kotthoff included in Part IV focuses on the ways of
responding to irony in conversation. The author uses interactional analysis to
show what responses to verbal irony can reveal about irony processing and how
irony is used in social interaction.
Part V consists of three papers describing how children acquire understanding of
irony and its social functions. In her paper ''A Developmental Test of
Theoretical Perspectives on the Understanding of Verbal Irony: Children's
Recognition of Allusion and Pragmatic Insincerity'', Marlena A. Creusere tests
the ''allusional pretense'' theory of irony. She argues that 8-year-old children,
just like adults, are able to recognize both allusion and pragmatic insincerity.
Jeffrey T. Hancock, Philip J. Dunham, and Kelly Purdy present their findings on
irony comprehension in their paper ''Children's Comprehension of Critical and
Complimentary Forms of Verbal Irony''. This is another attempt to test the
''allusional pretense'' theory of irony. The experimental study shows that 5- and
6-year-old children percept critical and complimentary forms of irony in
different ways. Critical intention is grasped easier. Another important
conclusion made by the authors is that for young children detecting irony is
separate from detecting speaker's pragmatic intention.
Melanie Harris Glenwright and Penny W. Pexman present their findings on how
children perceive social functions of verbal irony. They argue that
understanding irony is a complicated task for children: the difficulty lies not
only in irony recognition, but also in understanding why the speaker has chosen
this particular mode of communication. The experimental study of children's
perception of irony showed that 5- to 8-year-olds recognize aggressive function
of irony easier than humor function. The latter continues to develop through
Part VI is devoted to the situational irony. Joan Lucariello, the author of
''Situational Irony: A Concept of Events Gone Awry'', develops a taxonomy of
situational ironic events and shows how ironic events are processed by
individuals. Relation between situational and verbal irony is yet another topic
of discussion in Lucariello's paper.
Akira Utsumi investigates what helps us distinguish between irony and nonirony.
In the paper ''Verbal Irony As Implicit Display of Ironic Environment:
Distinguishing Ironic Utterances From Nonirony'' the author argues that verbal
irony can be described as a prototype-based category. Utsumi offers an Implicit
Display theory which helps to distinguish between irony and nonirony.
The last paper included in Part VI is ''The Bicoherence Theory of Situational
Irony'' by Cameron Shelley. The author offers yet another theory of situational
irony. Cameron Shelley argues that for a situation to be perceived as ironic, it
should have a special cognitive structure the conceptual elements of which are
bicoherent. Secondly, situations that are described as ironic, normally produce
a specific emotional effect.
Part VII ''The Future of the Irony'' is a Conclusion written by the editors.
Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr. and Herbert L. Colston make suggestions for further
investigations into verbal and situational irony. The question how we arrive at
ironic sentence meaning remains unsolved. There is also an important problem of
how ironic meaning processing differs from literal meaning processing. Another
closely related problem is the degree to which ironic utterances can be
adequately paraphrased by non-ironic expressions. These and many other questions
concerning irony need an interdisciplinary examination.
The book has as its aim to present a diverse range of research on irony done in
the past 20 years. The merit of the volume is that both theoretical and
empirical findings are presented. The papers included in the book come from
different fields of research and the collection shows the overlap in interests
of linguists, cognitive scientists, psychologists, philosophers. Though all the
papers included in the collection were originally ''stand-alone'' pieces, being
put together they give the reader the complete picture of the modern research on
One of the best qualities of the book is the thought-provoking comparison of
different theories of irony and their experimental testing. This enables the
readers to see the pros and cons of different theoretical frameworks.
I think the book could be a good reference source for scholars who study
indirect communication and figurative language from different perspectives.
Another good point of the book is the questions about irony that still remain
unanswered. These questions make the volume not only a reference book, but also
an excellent starting point for those studying indirect ways of communication.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Ksenia M. Shilikhina is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Voronezh State
University, Russia. She teaches various courses on linguistics. Her current
research interests include pragmatics of indirect communication and figurative
language. She is also interested in the philosophy of language.