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Review of  Irony in Language Use and Communication

Reviewer: Sara Vilar-Lluch
Book Title: Irony in Language Use and Communication
Book Author: Angeliki Athanasiadou Herbert L. Colston
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 29.3907

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Irony constitutes a complex conceptual and communicative process with multiple manifestations, mainly divided between situational and verbal types. To analyze the importance of irony for cognitive, embodied and communicative or social skills requires the dialogue and collaboration between different disciplines. “Irony in Language Use and Communication”, edited by Angeliki Athanasiadou and Herbert L. Colston, examines the different aspects of irony by bringing together contributions from a wide variety of disciplines and approaches. Part I presents research from cognitive science, psychology and philosophy, and it is complemented by Part II, a collection of studies in authentic data. Part III traces a relationship between irony and other types of figurative language, and Part IV closes the volume with an examination of different methods and approaches followed to date in irony research.

Part I. Interdisciplinary perspectives on irony

Colston opens the volume with “Irony performance and perception”. The chapter presents two main hypothesis: (i) “contrast” stands as the common factor of all types of irony (situational and verbal), and (ii) irony is an embodied phenomenon. For Colston, the different theories on irony explain different nuances of the phenomenon but are not incompatible with one another (p. 35). All accounts of irony establish contrast (i.e. the simultaneous presentation of two contradictory schemas of the same thing) as the main condition for irony to emerge. The embodied or “conjoined antonymy” hypothesis identifies the structure of the human body as the ultimate base of irony, for it is what eventually determines how human beings conceptualize the world. While schematization and categorization are useful cognitive operations when reality is consistent, irony arises in those situations when categorical thinking does not apply (p. 37).

Gibbs and Samermit further examine irony as part of our embodied experience in “How does irony arise in experience?”. Although the different situational and verbal phenomena understood as “irony” present a family resemblance, the authors argue irony should better be regarded as an “umbrella term” and reject the possibility of accounting for all manifestations of irony “by a singular irony mechanism” (p. 57). By showing different cases of situational irony (i.e. “thought suppression” and “benign body violations”), Gibbs and Samermit hold that irony has to be understood as both a pragmatic and cognitive device, for it enables not only communication, but also the understanding of certain complex or paradoxical situations (p. 48)

Willison closes Part I with “In defence of an ecumenical approach to irony”. Restrictive approaches to irony, i.e. those which delimit the application of the term “irony” so as to offer more detailed investigations, are presented as unsatisfactory because relevant research questions are left unanswered (p. 62). For Willison, a solid theory of irony should be able to account for (i) the psychological mechanisms employed in producing and interpreting irony, (ii) the range of possible uses of irony or why irony is produced in the first place, and (iii) the resemblances between the different kinds of irony (p. 72 & 76). Since the literature has shown that irony production and comprehension is generated by different processes, the author presents an ecumenical approach as the most appropriate option.

Part II. Irony, thought and (media) communication

In “Introducing a three-dimensional model of verbal irony”, Burgers and Steen argue irony should be examined in the three levels of language, thought and communication so as to enable a unification of metaphor and irony studies (p. 88). Irony in language examines the different formulations ironic utterances can take (p. 92). Irony in thought has been mainly addressed by the relevance and pretence theories (p. 93-96). Burgers and Steen propose to understand irony in thought as an “evaluative contrast”, a “shift in evaluative valence” (p. 94 & 95). Irony in communication is studied through the variable of “deliberateness”. Deliberateness is not understood in Gibbs’ terms of “conscious decision”. Irony is deliberate when “the propositional meaning is present as a direct referent in the situational model of the utterance”, and non-deliberate when only the intended meaning is present (p. 98 & 104). While in processing deliberate ironies the recipient pays attention to the two valences of the expression, in processing the non-deliberate type (e.g. conventional ironies and default ironic expressions) no attention is directed to the propositional content (p. 99).

Batoréo’s chapter “On ironic puns in Portuguese authentic oral data” presents the analysis of two cases of multiple meaning (polysemy and homonymy) as employed in puns to examine the communicative and cognitive functions of irony. The first case study analyses a pun based on the polysemy of the word “Mercedes”, and presents the different metonymic relations upon which the polysemy is constructed. The analysis shows intentional irony (here the sarcastic comment) may come together with non-intentional irony (here situational) (p. 118). The second case study analyses a pun based on the homonymy of “cremado”. Both the sarcasm and the irony of the puns ultimately rely on the shared socio-historical background of the participants (p. 121). The study supports Gibbs’ hypothesis on asymmetry of irony: while jocular utterances employ negative statements to convey positive messages, sarcastic comments employ positive statements to express negative criticisms (p. 122).

In “Irony and sarcasm in follow-ups of metaphorical slogans”, Musolff examines the importance of discourse history in irony and sarcasm comprehension. The slogan “Britain at the heart of Europe” is analysed in a total of 236 British press texts, from 1991 to 2016. In the period studied, the slogan was the object of constant repetitions and reinterpretations (p.132), which eventually led to the negative re-contextualization of the metaphor in ironic and sarcastic statements. Metaphor, irony and sarcasm are integrated in the comprehension of ironic and sarcastic utterances derived from a previous metaphor. Two main comprehension stages are differentiated (based on Giora, 2003): (i) activation of the contextually salient meanings, i.e. recognition of the mismatch between the (echoed) familiar HEART metaphor, in which “heart” stands for centrality/closeness, and the (intended) negative meaning of the ironic/sarcastic comment (“heart” as ILLNESS/MALFUNCTION); and (ii) integration phase in which the readers pragmatically assess the statement as ironic/sarcastic (p. 137-138). The conventionalised metaphor (i.e. healthy heart) constitutes the “narrative-evaluative scenario” (p. 129) evoked in the comprehension of the non-default meaning of ironic and sarcastic comments.

Part III. Approaches to verbal irony

In “Irony, pretence and fictively-elaborating hyperbole”, Barnden adopts the pretence approach to irony and argues the appropriateness of understanding irony in terms of “(micro) drama” (p. 145). The “drama” account is presented as especially suitable for the examination of how the ironist’s pretending takes place (p. 148). Irony involves a “drama world”, i.e. the fictional context in which the pretended agent operates (p.146), and it is frequently composed by “fictively-elaborating hyperboles”, exaggerations produced by the ironist’s addition of invented details with the aim to emphasize his/her evaluation (p. 147 & 152). The invented details produce the emphasis and contrast of the ironic comment (p. 170). While studies of irony have traditionally studied “contrast” as the mismatch between the beliefs of the acted speaker and the real world, Barnden argues two more potential “contrasts” should be considered: (i) the contrast between the drama world and the real world, and (ii) the contrast between the acted speaker’s beliefs and the surrounding drama world (p. 175).

In “Cognitive modelling and irony”, Ruiz de Mendoza Ibáñez examines the cognitive processes involved in irony and presents a cognitive model for irony. “Cognitive models” are “internally coherent representations of the world” employed in any cognitive activity (p. 179 & 190). Cognitive modelling is hypothesised as an appropriate approach for the study of all types of figurative thought, irony included. Irony cannot be identified with echo or with contrast alone. Unaccompanied by echoic repetition, contrast does not generate irony: overstatements, understatements, oxymoron, paradoxes and hyperboles entail contrast, and yet irony is not necessarily present (p. 188-189). Irony constitutes a complex cognitive activity that requires an echoed thought, the contrast of two scenarios, an inference process, and concept building (p. 193). A new conceptual scenario is generated when the original thoughts do not match the observable reality. The observation of the real scenario echoes the original thoughts (i.e. an echoed scenario is generated), and the original scenario is cancelled as a result of the mismatch or contrast (p. 197). The new ironic scenario will include the speaker’s emotional response to the (cancelled) original thoughts.

Athanasiadou’s “Irony has a metonymic basis” establishes conceptual metonymy as the basic mechanism to evoke irony (p. 202). The author does not understand metonymy as a lexical phenomenon only. A broader view which includes conceptual contiguity, salience, highlighting, and general and situational knowledge is proposed (p. 205). Athanasiadou argues that verbal irony can be located in particular grammatical constructions, and the chapter offers a study of two “iconic” types: the adjective noun pair, in which irony is expressed by opposing scripts, and the like-construction pair, which expresses irony by hyperbolic (dissimilar) comparison (p. 206). The examination shows irony is highly dependent on other types of figurative language (e.g. metonymy, similes and hyperbole), and cannot be reduced to mere expression of opposition (p. 212).

Part IV. Approaches to studying irony

Giora and colleagues’ “Defaultness shines while affirmation pales” examines the Defaultness Hypothesis and the Optimal Innovation Hypothesis in the comprehension of sarcasm. Linguistic processing is frequently explained in relation to four variables: affirmation, literalness, context, and degree of salience (p. 219-220). The study examines the primacy of defaultness over affirmation in information processing with two tests. Test 1: speed of processing of default meanings of negative idioms is measured in contraposition to the nondefault positive counterparts. Default meanings of positive lexical idioms are then compared to nondefault interpretations of the negative versions. Test 2: speed of processing of default negative sarcasm is measured in contraposition to the positive version. In both cases, defaultness prevails: default targets are processed faster than nondefault ones, regardless of their valence. Following the Optimal Innovation Hypothesis, nondefault meanings’ processing is compensated by making the nondefaultness more gratifying, i.e. when non-default meanings de-automatise a default salient meaning of a familiar stimulus, the interpretation of the novel stimulus is more pleasant (p. 230).

In “The standard experimental approach to the study of irony”, Katz examines how the traditional experimental approach can be revised to reduce its artificiality and increase its ecological validity in the study of irony and sarcasm (p. 237). The chapter presents three types of modification of experiments based on the traditional approach with successful outcomes (p. 237). Case 1 studies when people understand a statement X as ironic. In order to increase the ecological validity of the experiment (i.e. ensure that the scenarios presented are actually possible real contexts), participants are not provided any artificial context. Instead, one group of participants was asked to provide scenarios in which they would use non-salient ironic statements as ironic, and the other group would have to provide a neutral context (p. 241). Case 2 proposes a new type of control group to study the pragmatic effects of employing irony instead of a direct comment. In order to determine which of the two conditions considered (presence vs absence of irony) explains the positivity frequently associated with ironic utterances, a neutral condition is proposed as control group: a context with no critical comment (p. 245-246). Case 3 explores the traditional measurement of irony, i.e. the reduction of ironic-impact to single measures in the rating scales, frequently examined separately one from the other (p. 248). Katz proposes a multi-nominal process tree model (p. 249- 250) in which ironic impact is examined in terms of conditional probabilities. Any ironic impact (e.g. an ironic comment perceived as polite mocking) is examined in relation to all the other possibilities in which the same ironic comment could be interpreted.

In “Investigating sarcasm comprehension using eye tracking during reading” Ţurcan and Filik examine how literality, familiarity and echoing affect written sarcasm comprehension (p. 259), and test the explanations of the standard pragmatic model, the graded salience hypothesis, and the echoic theory. The study employs the eye tracking method: it has ecological validity (participants can re-read earlier portions of text as they would do in real contexts) and a millisecond temporal acuity (p. 259). The experiment supports the echoic mention: sarcastic comments are processed faster if they echo an explicit antecedent (p. 273). Sarcasm comprehension complexity is only higher than this of the literal equivalents when it does not echo any contextual antecedent (p. 273). However, echo cannot be identified as necessary for sarcasm comprehension. Instead, comprehension of sarcastic comments is conditioned by a variety of factors, none of them necessary on its own for comprehension to be given (p. 274).


“Irony in Language Use and Communication” is an interdisciplinary volume that brings together state of the art research on irony and sarcasm from linguistics, psychology, psycholinguistics and philosophy. With the integration of these four different disciplines in the same volume, the collection meets the interests of a large audience and provides a comprehensive and critical approach to irony.

As evidenced in the summary section, the chapters show research in irony satisfies different interests and can adopt a wide diversity of approaches. Chapters 5 (Batoréo) and 6 (Musolff), authentic data-based analyses of irony and sarcasm, may contrast with theoretical discussions on irony approaches, such as the ones offered in Chapter 3 (Willison), 7 (Barnden) and 8 (de Mendoza). And yet, Musolff shows how the linguistic analysis of irony and sarcasm as employed in news reports can shed light on theoretical inquiries (i.e. integration of metaphor and irony accounts), and successfully incorporate insights from experimental research (i.e. Giora and colleagues’ Defaultness Hypothesis). Burgers and Steen explore further the possibility of an integration of metaphor and verbal irony and propose the adoption of a three-dimensional framework based on Steen’s three-dimensional model of metaphor (Steen, 2008). Burgers and Steen’s proposal is circumscribed to the study of verbal irony, thus not accounting for the situational type of irony as aimed in more encompassing approaches (cf., for example, Colson’s Chapter 1). However, the three-dimensional model contributes to figurative language research by bringing investigations on metaphor and irony together, separated in the late 70s and early 80s with the cognitive turn in linguistics (Burgers & Steen, p. 88; Musolff, p. 128). Athanasiadou (Chapter 9) and Barnden (Chapter 7) do not propose any inclusive framework for the study of metaphor and irony, but both acknowledge the strong interdependence between irony and other forms of figurative language, hyperbole and metonymy in particular (Athanasiadou, p. 212). From a different angle, also de Mendoza (Chapter 8) takes a unifying perspective toward figurative language. Following the hypothesis that all types of figurative thinking can be explained in terms of cognitive modelling (p. 181), de Mendoza proposes a cognitive model for irony in the line of those available for metaphor and metonymy.

The collection achieves a rich dialogue between the different sections and chapters; the presentation of alternative approaches comes together with a constant critical examination of the different perspectives adopted. Colston’s presentation of “contrast” as a common factor of all irony types is complemented by Willison’s defence of an ecumenical approach, an attempt to give account of the full range of different phenomena understood as “irony”. The “conjoined antonymy” hypothesis (i.e. ironic contradictions are based on the structure of our mental representations, in their turn ultimately based on the structure of our bodies, cf. Colston p. 38) is supported by research in embodiment (cf. Gibbs and Samermit’s Chapter 2). However, in establishing “irony” as an “umbrella term”, Gibbs and Samermit reject the possibility of identifying any common factor: “there is no single essence that underlies all aspect of the concept [irony]” (p. 45). The rejection of an “ironic essence” entails that it is not possible (to date at least) to determine a unique factor to explain what people see as ironic in real contexts (p. 45). This remark seems to be confirmed by experimental research such as Ţurcan and Filik’s study on sarcasm comprehension. While the experiment evidences echoic mention as a facilitator of the comprehension of (written) sarcastic comments (p. 273), the authors acknowledge the impossibility of establishing a single necessary factor for sarcasm comprehension (p. 274). Thus, it is sensible to affirm with Colston that theories on irony and sarcasm should better be regarded as relatively complementary approaches rather than completely incompatible perspectives (p. 35). The different approaches illustrate different conditions that come into play in irony and sarcasm production and understanding. Giora and colleagues establish defaultness as the most relevant variable in sarcasm and idiomatic expressions processing (Chapter 10). In doing so, the importance of literalness, affirmation, or context in comprehension is not denied. The experiments evidence defaultness as primary factor, i.e. the variable that conditions how the other ones contribute to comprehension. While default salient meanings are prompted as automatic responses to the stimulus, non-salience meanings will rely on context cues for their activation (p. 222). As evidenced in Batoréo and Musolff, the “context” variable in irony and sarcasm comprehension is both situational context and the broader cultural background. Understanding a pun requires knowledge of the language spoken and the cultural assumptions or stereotypes that will activate one homonym or the other. Likewise, understanding the sarcastic comment of a parody in a newspaper requires that the readers hold some knowledge of the previous employment of the comment (or metaphor), now echoed and re-contextualized as sarcasm (p. 136).

The chapters evidence the strengths of the different types of research. Experimental studies make it possible to measure, for example, how the processing variables identified by the different theories influence one another. However, they have to tackle difficulties with ecological validity and artificiality of data, as pointed out in Chapter 11 (Katz). While not providing the insights of experimental research, studies such as the ones presented in Chapters 5 and 6 make it possible to contrast and develop irony theories by examining real language use, thus escaping from the controversies attributed to the experimental approach. In examining the difficulty of some theories to account for the different findings of experimental studies, Ţurcan and Filik conclude that theories of irony may be too specific and cannot accommodate all data (p. 273). Ecumenical approaches may offer an option. However, it is also reasonable to question the actual benefits of an all-encompassing theory of irony. In other words, an increase of the explanatory potential should not compromise the possibility of testability.


Giora, R. (2003). On our mind: Salience, context, and figurative language. Oxford University

Press.Steen, G. (2008). The paradox of metaphor: Why we need a three-dimensional model of metaphor. Metaphor and Symbol, 23(4), 213-241.
Sara Vilar-Lluch is a PhD student at the University of East Anglia, UK. Her main research areas are Systemic Functional Linguistics, Appraisal Theory and Discourse Analysis; she is also interested in metaphor theory. In her PhD project she studies the representation of ADHD and the diagnosed individuals in the psychiatric, educational, political and family institutional discourses.