LINGUIST List 28.3259

Tue Aug 01 2017

Review: Pragmatics: Ruiz-Gurillo (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 08-Apr-2017
From: Villy Tsakona <>
Subject: Metapragmatics of Humor
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Book announced at

EDITOR: Leonor Ruiz-Gurillo
TITLE: Metapragmatics of Humor
SUBTITLE: Current research trends
SERIES TITLE: IVITRA Research in Linguistics and Literature 14
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Villy Tsakona, Democritus University of Thrace

REVIEWS EDITOR: Helen Aristar-Dry


The aim of “Metapragmatics of humor: Current research trends,” edited by Leonor Ruiz-Gurillo, is to investigate humor “as a metapragmatic ability” and “as a reflexive ability of language” (p. 1). Its content is divided into three parts: the first one (Chapters 2-5) includes articles attempting to connect the General Theory of Verbal Humor (GTVH, Attardo 2001) to metapragmatic awareness; the second one (Chapters 6-12) explores speakers’ metapragmatic awareness as manifested in different genres (e.g. canned jokes, face-to-face interactions, stand-up comedy, satirical performances); and the third one (Chapters 13-14) concerns the development of metapragmatic awareness in children.

The introduction of the volume offers a brief theoretical discussion of previous studies on metapragmatics and metapragmatic awareness, as well as an outline of the contents of the volume. Those interested in metapragmatics in general will definitely find useful the extensive list of references, since they cover a variety of approaches to metapragmatics.

The first part of the volume begins with Laura Alba-Juez’s chapter on “The variables of the evaluative functional relationship: The case of humorous discourse”. The author underlines the importance of evaluation for producing and interpreting humor: “[h]umorous discourse […] always contains an underlying stance (on the part of the interlocutors), manifested through the use of evaluative language/discourse, gestures, prosody, laughter, or images” (p. 31). Her proposal exploits previous research on evaluation to determine six variables to be used for accounting for evaluation in jokes. Although these parameters are exemplified in several jokes, the analysis is restricted to textual evaluation and does not expand to evaluative reactions to jokes (p. 21), which would bring the discussion even closer to the metapragmatics of humor. Moreover, evaluation is proposed as an additional knowledge resource for the analysis of humor in GTVH terms (Attardo 2001). The author is right in pointing out that evaluation is strongly related to two already existing knowledge resources, namely the Narrative Strategy and the Language ones, since evaluation is indeed genre-dependent and does affect the verbal encoding of the humorous text. However, she does not relate evaluation to two other knowledge resources: the Target (i.e. the object of evaluation, what is ridiculed or criticized through humor), and the Script Opposition, which encodes why an action, idea, etc. is assessed as abnormal, unexpected, and/or unconventional. These two knowledge resources are crucial for determining what, why, and how something is evaluated as funny/humorous.

The chapter by Ana Pano Alamán and Ana Mancera Rueda, “Humor and advertising in Twitter: An approach from the General Theory of Verbal Humor and metapragmatics”, is based on a corpus of humorous tweets posted by Spanish companies or public institutions to create and maintain their bonds with the wider audience, to enhance their public profiles, and sometimes even to appease customers’ complaints. The authors claim that metapragmatic competence/awareness plays a significant role in both the production and comprehension of such humorous tweets. They see metapragmatic competence/awareness as knowing how linguistic elements (are expected to) work in specific communicative settings. Such knowledge guides speakers’ choices concerning their own linguistic production and their evaluation of that of others’ (p. 37). Therefore, metapragmatic competence/awareness allows readers to identify humor by tracing incongruous situations or actions, style clashes, double voices and meanings, etc. In this context, they analyze a large number of examples shedding light on different aspects of such humor and showing how humor is used “as a promotional and an advertising strategy, in order to consolidate the brand and the institution images and to increase the number of their followers in the microblog” (p. 52).

Marta Agüero Guerra’s aim in her article “Beyond verbal incongruity: A genre-specific model for the interpretation of humor in political cartoons” is to offer a comprehensive genre-specific model for the analysis of cartoons. She thus begins with an extensive discussion of previous research on social semiotics, comic studies, intersemiosis as well as of linguistic and, in particular, cognitive approaches to humor. The author is right in pointing out that, among humor scholars and within humor theories, the visual elements of cartoons and their contribution to meaning-making and meaning-comprehension have often been underestimated. Hence, she attempts to bring to the surface all those aspects of visual semiotics and visual literacy that could help us account for cartoon humor. An analytical model of five phases is proposed and applied for the analysis of two Spanish cartoons referring to the current financial crisis in Spain. Initially the model seems simple, but, as it incorporates all the above-mentioned theoretical frameworks and respective terminology, its application turns out to be quite complex and perhaps difficult to follow.

The main goal of Leonor Ruiz-Gurillo’s “Metapragmatics of humor: Variability, negotiability and adaptability in humorous monologues” is to demonstrate how the GTVH (Attardo 2001) could be perceived as a theory reflecting the metapragmatic abilities and awareness of both humorists and their audience. She thus attempts to explain the different phases the producers and recipients of a humorous text go through when processing it. More specifically, Ruiz-Gurillo exploits Verschueren’s (1999) approach, according to which variability (i.e. the range of linguistic choices available), negotiability (i.e. the flexible principles and strategies used to make specific linguistic choices), and adaptability (i.e. the negotiable choices made to achieve specific communicative needs) are key notions to describe metapragmatic activities. The author claims that variability, negotiability, and adaptability could be matched to the knowledge resources proposed within the GTVH. The resulting analytical model is applied to extracts from humorous monologues by a Spanish comedian, Andreu Buenafuente.

Miguel Ángel Campos’ study on “Lawyers, great lawyers, and liars: The metapragmatics of lying in lawyer jokes” opens the second part of the volume and concentrates on a specific cycle of canned jokes, that is, lawyer jokes, which have become popular during the past few decades, especially in the USA. Such jokes are based on, and reproduce, negative stereotypes concerning, among other things, lawyers’ immoral behavior, untrustworthiness, and tendency to lie – the latter being the focus of the study. After considering that both humor and lying have been analyzed from a pragmatic perspective, the author exemplifies how lawyer jokes represent lawyers violating Grice’s (1975) maxims of quantity, quality, and manner. Campos concludes that lawyer jokes constitute “a metapragmatic event” (p. 121) as they exhibit specific thematic and structural properties which render them recognizable, accepted, effective in causing laughter, and eventually predictable (pp. 121-122): “[t]he participants (the joke-teller and the audience) are clearly aware of the type of discourse involved, of the rules it is governed by, and the underlying ideology, but such metapragmatic awareness is precisely one of the most powerful mechanisms supporting this type of humor” (p. 122).

Isabel Balteiro’s study entitled “A look at metalinguistic jokes based on intentional morphological reanalysis” pertains to jokes that play with linguistic conventions and, more specifically, with word or morpheme boundaries to create a humorous effect. Based on a small corpus of English riddle-jokes, the author examines the intentional morphological reanalyses performed to produce this kind of humor, and demonstrates how its interpretation presupposes a proficient knowledge of the English language, as well as shared sociocultural knowledge between the humorist and the recipients. The analysis of her corpus reveals that the playful manipulation of word or morpheme boundaries may result in the creation of pseudo-morphemes, in folk etymologies, or even in new words. Spelling conventions (e.g. capitalization) or dashes are exploited to mark the manipulation and hence the humorous intention of such jokes. This is why, she observes, such metalinguistic humor works better in written discourse; in oral discourse “the speaker may probably compensate for this [lack of visual cues] by playing with stress, pauses or by varying the length of the vowel at the time of speaking or telling the joke” (p. 137).

In “How do French humorists adapt across situations? A corpus study of their prosodic and (dis)fluency profiles”, Iulia Grosman examines a wide variety of prosodic features (pauses, speech rate, articulation rate, pitch rate, glissando, pitch rises and falls, melodic agitation, accents/stress) and (dis)fluency markers (filled/unfilled pauses, discourse markers, false starts, truncation, repetitions, substitutions, insertions) in four contexts where professional comedians deliver their performances and develop their personae: standup comedy shows, face-to-face interactions, radio shows, and radio interviews. The findings of this study show that, on the one hand, there are statistically significant differences in the use of prosodic features and (dis)fluency markers across the genres examined, and on the other that each comedian exhibits a distinct phonostyle across genres. Her elaborate prosodic analysis, however, seems incomplete as all the features investigated are isolated from their co-text, that is, from the surrounding discourse. Given that comedians’ humorous discourse does not solely consist of humorous utterances but also of serious ones (see serious relief in Attardo 2001), it would be interesting to investigate whether all these prosodic features are included in humorous or serious utterances of comedians’ performances.

Craig O. Stewart’s chapter on “Truthiness and consequences: A cognitive pragmatic analysis of Stephen Colbert’s satirical strategies and effects” highlights the importance of uptake when investigating the metapragmatics of humor. The ways recipients perceive a text intended as humorous or, in the present case, as satirical could provide us with valuable information concerning their metapragmatic awareness (Verschueren 2000), namely the processes through which they reach or do not reach a specific interpretation of the text. Stewart uses Simpson’s (2003) model of satire, Bell’s (1991) theory of audience and referee design, and Booth’s (1974) work on irony to account for the different reception of two satirical performances delivered by the same comedian in front of different audiences and in difference contexts. He convincingly explains the reasons why one of these performances was not perceived as satirical by all of its viewers, while the other turned out to be a most successful one. His analysis connects the phases Simpson identifies in satirical communication with the concept of ‘metapragmatic awareness’ and simultaneously accounts for an important aspect of the metapragmatics of humor, namely its failure or backfiring, thus discussing “the power and the pitfalls of ironic satire as political discourse” (p. 187).

In her chapter on “Variability, adaptability and negotiability in conversational humor: A matter of gender”, M. Belén Alvarado-Ortega explores how men and women construct gender identities via humor in same-gender everyday interactions. Like Ruiz-Gurillo (see above), Alvarado-Ortega builds her argumentation and analysis on the concepts of variability, negotiability, and adaptability (Verschueren 1999): “the variability of resources that speakers have at their disposal is linked to the recognition and understanding of their interlocutor’s utterance; negotiability has to do with appreciating the humorous utterance; and adaptability refers to the humorous agreement adopted by the interlocutors” (p. 211). Through a qualitative and a quantitative analysis of her data from Spanish, the author claims that men and women exhibit different preferences when it comes to constructing and negotiating humorous discourse: “whereas women try to adapt their message to the humorous mode when humor appears seeking to strengthen their ties with the conversational group, men decide to negotiate their message and leave the humorous utterance as a way to safeguard their public image, sometimes threatened by other participants in the conversational exchange” (p. 210).

In her article entitled “Teasing in casual conversations: An opportunistic discursive strategy”, Béatrice Priego-Valverde explores the interactional dynamics of linguistic pinning, namely a kind of teasing consisting “of repeating what has been said by one of the participants in order to initiate a humorous sequence” (p. 215). In her theoretical discussion, Priego-Valverde compares linguistic pinning to two other mechanisms for the creation of conversational humor, namely repetition and punning, to highlight their similarities and differences. The data examined comes from French interactions among peers in informal settings and its analysis reveals that linguistic pinning is employed by participants either to point out a (real or pretended) linguistic inappropriateness of the previous speaker, or to bring to the surface a second meaning of his/her words which was not the intended one. Via a thorough analysis of her data, the author demonstrates how interactants negotiate the construction of humor based on linguistic pinning, and remarks that this cannot be achieved without all participants’ agreement and consent to enter the play frame proposed by the one who initiates the linguistic pinning. Such acceptance and consent depend on the face needs of each participant.

Elisa Gironzetti, Salvatore Attardo, and Lucy Pickering investigate the role of smiling in face-to-face interactions containing humor. Their chapter entitled “Smiling, gaze, and humor in conversation: A pilot study” reports on a pilot study using eye-trackers to record “whether participants pay more attention to smiling facial areas (the mouth and the eyes) when humor is present than when there is no humor” and “if and how mutual gaze and eye contact behavior are influenced by the presence of humor in conversation” (p. 240). The methodology adopted combines social eye-tracking and discourse analysis: participants’ gaze patterns and smiling behavior are correlated to their production of humorous or non-humorous discourse in the form of jab lines, punch lines, and irony. The authors also take into consideration participants’ metapragmatic comments concerning the presence (or absence) of humor (e.g. ‘that was funny’). The findings of the pilot study suggest that when humorous discourse is produced, participants seem to pay more attention to each other’s facial areas involved in smiling as well as to display a higher smiling intensity. This means that participants observe each other’s faces to trace smiling behavior and this helps them identify their interlocutor’s humorous intention and framing of discourse. It is therefore empirically confirmed that smiling is indeed employed as a metapragmatic marker of humor in face-to-face interactions.

The third part of the volume is dedicated to the development of metapragmatic awareness in children. Elena Hoicka contributes to this discussion from a developmental psychology perspective. In her chapter “Understanding of humorous intentions: A developmental approach”, she presents findings from previous research suggesting that children’s humor appreciation develops gradually since the first year of their life, while from the age of 4 onwards they can even detect and appreciate humorous incongruities and their resolutions. Similarly, humor production comes as early as 8 months old, but it takes a bit longer, that is, in month 25, for children to become capable of understanding their interlocutor’s humorous intention. Parents seem to play a significant role in this process as they exploit smiling, laughter, and prosodic or verbal cues to help children distinguish between humorous and non-humorous acts. Furthermore, it is also reported that research has provided some answers concerning children’s ability to distinguish between humor and lying and between humor and pretence. The author concludes by observing that there seem to be important differences in all such skills between children with typical development and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or Down’s Syndrome.

Finally, in her chapter entitled “Children using phraseology for humorous purposes: The case of 9-to-10-year-olds”, Larissa Timofeeva-Timofeev reports of a study on the use of phraseology (e.g. idioms, collocations, discursive formulas, phrasal compounds) in written fictional narratives produced by 9-10 year-old children. Her study is based on the premise that children’s phraseological use and skills are directly related to their metapragmatic awareness. Among the findings presented in the chapter, those closest to humor research pertain to children’s manipulation of phraseology to produce humorous effects. In particular, children of 9-10 years old seem to be able to play with formulaic expressions and create new compound words as part of their intention to create humor. This, the author suggests, is indicative of their metapragmatic awareness as it “provide[s] evidence of the reflective consciousness” on which language use is based (p. 275) or “rests on a reflective monitoring of discourse” (p. 292). Moreover, some gender differences emerge from the quantitative analysis of the data: “girls showed better skills in the utilization of manipulated phraseology, which again reinforces our perception about their higher level of reflexive control over discourse” (p. 295).


One of the main assumptions underlying a significant part of humor research since the 1960s is that texts intended as humorous are more often than not perceived (or could be perceived) as such by everyone. Gradually, it started becoming evident that significant sociocultural differences can be attested in humor production and comprehension resulting in contrasting interpretations of the same humorous text, misunderstandings in humorous communication, or even failed humor. Hence, humor researchers started to focus on how such differences are encoded in discourse, for example, through contextualization cues or, most importantly, explicit statements on what is considered as humorous or not (see among others Canestrari 2010, Kramer 2011, Laineste 2011, Stewart 2013, Tsakona 2013, 2015, Bell 2015).

It is exactly in this context that the metapragmatics of humor has become a burgeoning field within humor research attracting the interest of an increasing number of scholars. The emphasis has so far been placed mostly on how the audience (re)contextualizes and responds to humorous texts, showing their alignment with, or disassociation from, their content and targets. In other words, the debate on the metapragmatics of humor has opened via bringing to the surface what was previously more or less ignored or taken for granted: audience reactions. Needless to say, such developments run in parallel with similar ones in other areas of metapragmatic research (e.g. see Agha 2007 on register and Kádár & Haugh 2013 on politeness).

In this sense, the volume under review is a most welcome addition to the relevant research. Not only does it acknowledge the significance of respective research topics, but it also enriches the literature and expands its scope by exploring topics such as speakers’ metapragmatic awareness/competence enabling them to detect others’ humorous intentions and to convey their own; the use of prosody, (dis)fluency markers, and facial expressions as metapragmatic markers of humor; and humorists’ metalinguistic/metapragmatic ability to manipulate linguistic/pragmatic conventions (see also Zirker & Winter-Froemel 2015).

Given the above, one would expect that the introduction to the volume would provide an overview of existing studies on the metapragmatics of humor and would explore the relationship between the chapters and previous research questions and findings. However, the theoretical discussion is only two pages long and may leave readers wondering which of the various definitions of metapragmatics provided cover/s, or is/are closer to, the studies included in the volume; if and how the diverse approaches proposed could form a coherent theoretical schema/proposal concerning the metapragmatics of humor; and eventually how the volume contributes to the recent expansion of theoretical discussions on metapragmatics (whether of humor or more generally). Furthermore, the literature review included in the introduction is at points too dense, thus rendering the comprehension of the relevant concepts and findings a rather demanding task for the not-so-initiated reader.

Undoubtedly, the volume offers insightful ideas and perspectives to those interested in the metapragmatics of humor. However, in some chapters, it is not always clear why the proposed analyses are considered metapragmatic and not merely pragmatic, or why their findings pertain to the metapragmatics of humor, and not to its pragmatics. Important questions are thus raised – for example, what kind of data and what methodological and analytical tools are suitable for investigating speakers’ metapragmatic awareness and positionings concerning what humor is and how it is (to be) constructed and used? Answering such questions will help us to distinguish more clearly between pragmatic and metapragmatic approaches to humorous discourse. Timofeeva-Timofeev points out that “[m]etapragmatic awareness is […] formulated with regard to such a discursive ‘monitoring’ based on the speakers’ ability to explicitly reflect on their message” (p. 274). In my view, the focus should be placed on the phrase ‘explicitly reflect’. Future research could concentrate more on specific kinds of utterances and markers which demonstrate producers’ and recipients’ ‘explicit reflection’ on the processing of humorous discourse, and will not merely allow us to infer it via, e.g., detecting interlocutors’ pragmatic intentions, which is, in any case, extremely difficult if at all possible. Otherwise, pragmatic and metapragmatic approaches to humor will unnecessarily overlap at the expense of the latter.

Despite the above reservations, the volume is recommended not only to those interested in the metapragmatics (and the pragmatics) of humorous discourse but also to those interested in the metapragmatics of language in general. As it sheds light on different aspects of the metapragmatics of humor, it contributes to the recent discussion on the topic and, hopefully, paves the way for more relevant research to come.


Agha, Asif. 2007. Language and social relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Attardo, Salvatore. 2001. Humorous texts: A semantic and pragmatic analysis. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Bell, Alan. 1991. The language of news media. Cambridge: Blackwell.

Bell, Nancy. 2015. We are not amused: Failed humor in interaction. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Booth, Wayne C. 1974. A rhetoric of irony. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Canestrari, Carla. 2010. Meta-communicative signals and humorous verbal interchanges: A case study. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 23(3). 327-349.

Grice, H. Paul. 1975. Logic and conversation. In Peter Cole & Jerry L. Morgan (eds.), Syntax and semantics. Volume 3. Speech Acts, 41-58. New York: Academic Press.

Kádár, Dániel Z. & Michael Haugh. 2013. Understanding politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kramer, Elise. 2011. The playful is political: The metapragmatics of internet rape-joke arguments. Language in Society 40(2). 137-168.

Laineste, Liisi. 2011. Politics of taste in a post-Socialist state: A case study. In Villy Tsakona & Diana Elena Popa (eds.), Studies in political humor: In between political critique and public entertainment, 217-241. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Simpson, Paul. 2003. On the discourse of satire: Toward a stylistic model of satirical humor. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Stewart, Craig O. 2013. Strategies of verbal irony in visual satire: Reading The New Yorker’s “Politics of Fear” cover. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 26(2). 197-217.

Tsakona, Villy. 2013. Okras and the metapragmatic stereotypes of humor: Towards an expansion of the GTVH. In Marta Dynel (ed.), Developments in linguistic humor theory, 25-48. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Tsakona, Villy. 2015. “The doctor said I suffer from vitamin € deficiency”: Investigating the multiple social functions of Greek crisis jokes. Pragmatics 25(2). 287-313.

Verschueren, Jef. 1999. Understanding pragmatics. London: Arnold.

Verschueren, Jef. 2000. Notes on the role of metapragmatic awareness in language use. Pragmatics 10(4). 439-456.

Zirker, Angelika & Esme Winter-Froemel (eds.). 2015. Wordplay and metalinguistic/metadiscursive reflection: Authors, contexts, techniques, and meta-reflection. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.


Villy Tsakona is Assistant Professor of Sociolinguistics and Discourse Analysis in the Department of Education Sciences in Early Childhood, Democritus University of Thrace, Greece. Her research interests include humor research, narrative, political and media discourse analysis, as well literacy theories and applications. She has co-edited Studies in Political Humor: In between Political Critique and Public Entertainment with Diana Popa (Benjamins, 2011), co-authored The Narrative Construction of Identities in Critical Education with Argiris Archakis (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), and authored The Sociolinguistics of Humor: Theory, Functions, and Teaching (Grigoris Publications 2013; in Greek). Personal webpage:

Page Updated: 01-Aug-2017