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Irony is a communicative behaviour in which the literal meaning and background assumptions associated with an utterance differ in systematic ways from the reality as assumed by the interlocutors. Typically, the intended meaning of ironical utterances is the opposite of the literal meaning. In most cases, irony expresses a negative or at least dissociative attitude towards the utterance meaning.


The word 'irony' derives from Greek eirōneía (cf. also Latin: ironia), which means 'simulated ignorance', 'the pretence of ignorance'.

The scope of irony

Typical instances of irony: opposite meanings

In a narrow sense, ironical utterances convey an intended meaning that is the opposite of the literal meaning expressed in the relevant sentence. Broader definitions also include other types of discrepancies between literal meaning and intended meaning.

Examples of verbal irony:

(1) I simply must have one of these. (uttered when standing in front of some ugly flower vases)

(2) The houses are well-looked after around here. (uttered when passing an area characterized by ruined buildings with broken windows)

Ironical utterances are typically evaluative, the literal meaning being the positively evaluated counterpart of the negatively evaluated intended meaning. For example, one is more likely to say How clever! to imply How stupid! than the other way around. Criticism or the implication of contempt is a central feature of irony: "Irony is always critical of somebody or has denigrating effects" (Fludernik 2007: 14).

Other instances of irony

Ironical utterances do not necessarily convey the opposite of what is literally said:

(3) I really appreciate cautious drivers. (uttered to a road hog)
-> presupposition is false ('you are a cautious driver'), though literal sentence meaning may be true

(4) Do help yourself (won’t you)! (uttered to a guest who is helping himself generously at your buffet)
-> discrepancy between the literal illocutionary force (imperative) and the intended meaning (comment)

(5) I think he is upset! (said about a person who is -- blind with rage -- complaining loudly in a shop)
-> ironical understatement; intended meaning is weaker than literal meaning

(6) Pleasure and action make the hours seem short. (William Shakespeare; uttered during a deadly boring university lecture)
-> ironical quotation

The examples given above show that the notion of 'irony' applies to many cases which cannot simply be characterized by saying that the intended meaning is the opposite of the literal meaning. Note that saying the opposite of what is true does not necessarily make an utterance ironical either. For example, (7) is not likely to be used in an ironical way, unless under specific circumstances (e.g. when someone is quoted).

(7) What a disaster. (uttered after a meeting that went extraordinary well)

Irony as hidden criticism

Winner and Gardner (1993: 429) state that "the primary function of irony is [...] to show something about the speaker". There is a large range of (predominantly negative) feelings that might be expressed by verbal irony. Ironical remarks are always uttered at someone’s expense. Still, verbal irony is often interpreted as less negative or offending than direct utterances. As has been shown in experiments, ironical utterances are preferred to their literal counterparts in order "to be funny, to soften the edge of an insult, to show themselves to be in control of their emotions, and to avoid damaging their relationship with the addressee" (Dews, Kaplan & Winner 1995: 297). These findings support the fact that the concepts of politeness, face, maintaining social relationship as well as humor are to be seen in close connection with verbal irony.

Irony and politeness

In specific cases, speakers may use verbal irony for reasons of politeness. These uses are in accordance with the Politeness Principle posited by Leech (1990): "If you must cause offence, at least do so in a way which doesn’t overtly conflict with the PP [Politeness Principle], but allows the hearer to arrive at the offensive point of your remark indirectly, by way of implicature" (Leech 1990: 82). Irony is one option of conveying hidden criticism, since literally positive words are used to express intended negative meanings. Gibbs and Colston (2007: 12) assume that the audience of an ironical utterance is unable to completely ignore the literal positive meaning. Consequently, there is a "diminishment of the overall degree of negativity expressed". Similarly, the Irony Principle established by Leech aims to explain this phenomenon of hidden criticism by claiming that an ironical utterance "enables a speaker to be impolite while seeming to be polite" (Leech 1990: 142). In example (10), the speaker prefers the indirect version -- an ironical utterance -- to convey 'hidden criticism'.

(10) "You are a natural-born story-teller." (uttered to a person obviously unable to tell stories)

The direct but rude version -- for example I do not want listen to you anymore. You are simply unable to tell stories. would likely cause a more negative effect in the addressee.

Understanding irony

Experiments have shown that children prior to age 6 are often unable to correctly understand irony. The ability to distinguish between the literal meaning and the intended meaning of an utterance does not develop before the age of 6 or 7. (For further information on mental processes and the development of irony understanding cf. Gibbs & Colston 2007.)

Non-verbal Intensifiers of irony

Verbal irony is typically supported by specific forms of non-verbal behaviour. In spoken language, intonation, facial expression and accompanying gestures function as ironical signals that the speaker can make use of to indicate to intention of his utterance. Without such non-verbal intensifiers, an ironical remark is more likely to be misunderstood or even missed and is hence difficult to convey in written language.

Theories of irony

Irony as a flouting of the maxim of quality

(Grice 1975)

H.P. Grice regarded irony as a figure of speech resulting from a violation of the maxim of quality ('Do not say what you believe to be false'). The flouting of the maxim is assumed to trigger implicatures: "It is perfectly obvious to A and his audience that what A has said or has made as if to say is something he does not believe, and the audience knows that A knows that this is obvious to the audience" (Grice 1975: 53). In (9), it is clear to both the speaker and the audience that there is an incongruity between what is said and what is meant.

(9) What a nice weather for a picnic. (uttered on a cold and rainy day)

Although A produces a false statement, the hearer assumes that A observes the cooperative principle and hence interprets A’s contribution as relevant.

Grice's (1975) analysis of irony does not, however, explain why irony is used. As it assumes that the intended meaning is obvious to both the speaker and the addressee anyway, the ironical utterances appear to be completely unmotivated.

The theory of echo

(Wilson & Sperber 1981, 1986)

Wilson and Sperber hold the view that irony is a specific type of echoic utterance. According to this approach, ironical utterances are regarded as “making reference to some state of affairs that was predicted, expected or desired, either because of some explicit prediction or based upon a mutually shared domain of knowledge” (Gibbs & Colston 2007: 5). Thus, an ironical utterance either echoes a previous remark ('explicit echo') or refers to general norms, popular wisdom, received knowledge ('implicit echo').

By making an ironical remark, the speaker conveys a certain attitude towards the proposition echoed. In most cases, it is an attitude of dissociation, ranging from mild ridicule to savage scorn (cf. Wilson & Sperber 1992: 59f). In the case of explicit echo, the only victim of the ironical utterance is the speaker that has been echoed. In (11), B echoes A’s previous remark and in so doing criticizes A.

(11) A: Cats are the loveliest creatures of the world.
Soon after, A got scratched by a cat and B says:
B: “Indeed. Cats are the loveliest creatures of the world.”

The echoic theory of irony has been criticized by Fludernik (2007: 19), who holds the view that irony concerns opinions and stereotypical views rather than particular utterances.

The theory of pretence

(Nakamura, Glucksberg & Brown 1995; H.W. Fowler, H.H. Clark, J. Gerrig)

In accordance with the etymology of the word 'irony', this concept is often seen in connection with 'pretence'.

According to the Allusional Pretence Theory (Nakamura, Glucksberg & Brown 1995), ironical utterances "allude to expectations or norms that have been violated" (Kumon-Nakamura et al. 2007: 60). Based on a discrepancy between the actual situation and what was expected, irony is, accordingly, used primarily to express the speaker’s attitude towards the target of the ironical remark. The violation of an expectation is answered by an ironical utterance that is literally inappropriate:

(12) Thanks for holding the door. (uttered to a person who just slammed the door in your face)

Accordingly, the aim of an ironical utterance is to call attention to an unexpected incongruity between what might have been and what actually is, in order to criticize the referent that violated the ideal norm. (13) is another, more humorous example in which the speaker criticizes the target of the ironical utterance by implying a deviation from the expected behaviour.

(13) How old did you say you were? (uttered to an adult person behaving very childish)

The Allusional Pretense Theory can be regarded as an elaboration of the echoic account, since the phenomenon of echo is subsumed under the concept of allusion.

Alternatively, the use of ironical utterances has been regarded as “pretending to be an injudicious person speaking to an uninitiated audience; the speaker intends the addressees of the irony to discover the pretense and thereby see his or her attitude towards the speaker, the audience, and the utterance” (Gibbs & Colston 2007: 25). The burden of criticism thus seems to be distributed over two 'victims': the speaker pretends to be ignorant, and there is also an 'unseeing audience'. Gibbs and Colston (2007: 27) point out that people tend to see the world according to norms of success and excellence. The speaker of an ironical utterance pretends to be an ignorant person seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. This ignorance is purposely affected by an ironical utterance and criticized at the same time.

The role of pretence was also mentioned by Grice (1978), who points out that "[t]o be ironical is, among other things, to pretend [...], and while one wants the pretense to be recognized as such, to announce it as a pretense would spoil the effect" (Grice 1978: 125).

'Pretence' can also cover larger stretches of discourse. In this case, the speaker creates a simulation or 'as-if reality', which is then adopted by the addressee:.

(13) A and B consider whether to go to a party or not. Finally they decide to go, but the party is deadly boring.
A: "I’m so glad we decided to come."
B: "We would have missed a lot."

See also

  • echoic use of language
  • implicature
  • indirectness
  • sarcasm
  • situational irony


  • Dews, S., J. Kaplan & E. Winner. 2007. Why not say it directly? The Social Functions of Irony. In: R.W. Gibbs & H.L. Colston (eds.), Irony in Language and Thought, 297-317. NY: LEA.
  • Fludernik, M. 2007. Interfaces of Language: The Case of Irony. In: T. Honegger, E.-M. Orth & S. Schwabe (eds.), Irony Revisited, 11-26. Würzburg: Könighausen & Neumann.
  • Gibbs, R.W.Jr. & H.L. Colston. 2007. Irony in Language and Thought. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Grice, H.P. 1978. Further notes on logic and conversation. In: P. Cole (ed.), Syntax and Semantics: Vol.9. Pragmatics, 113-128. New York: Academic.
  • Kumon-Nakamura, S., S. Glucksberg & M. Brown. 2007. How about another Piece of Pie: The Allusional Pretense Theory of Discourse Irony. In: R.W. Gibbs & H.L. Colston (eds.), Irony in Language and Thought, 57-95. NY: LEA.
  • Leech, G. 1995. Principles of Pragmatics. London: Longman.
  • Levinson, S.C. 1997. Pragmatics. Cambridge: UP.
  • Wilson, D. & D. Sperber. 1992. On Verbal Irony. Lingua 87: 53-76.
  • Wilson, D. 2006. The Pragmatics of Verbal Irony: Echo or Pretence?. Lingua 116: 1722-1743.
  • Winner, E. & H. Gardner. 1993. Metaphor and Irony: two Levels of Understanding. In: A. Ortony (ed.), Metaphor and Thought, 425-443. 2nd ed. Cambridge: UP.


Wikipedia Wikipedia: Irony (English)