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      Semiotica ; 204: –

    Alan Bailin

    On the characteristics of verbal irony

     Abstract: During the last orty years there have been a number o attempts to

    understand verbal irony in relation to specific kinds o speech acts (negating,

    echoing, pretending, alluding). This article argues that these theories can ac-

    count or certain subsets o ironic phenomena but not others precisely because

    o their ocus on substantive kinds o speech acts rather than more general rela-

    tional semiotic properties. The article proposes two conditions based on rela-

    tional semiotic properties. These conditions, it is argued, allow or a unified ac-

    count o ironic phenomena and a better understanding o irony in relation to

    other tropes.

    Keywords: irony; semiotics; pragmatics; discourse; figurative language;


    DOI ./sem--

    Introduction: The elusive nature of verbal irony

    Semiotics examines signs and symbols not as carrying meaning because o

    their inherent content or because they are part o some sort o act or gesture,

    but because o the relations in which they partake, the code o which they are

    part. A sign, even something as simple as a green traffic light, does not carry

    meaning in and o itsel, but rather as part o a relational code that links the

    green color to other colors and all o these colors to a context in which they

    are used or a purpose (Hodge and Kress 1988: 37–38). However, during the lastorty years there have been a number o attempts to understand irony as a verbal

    phenomenon, not in terms o semiotic relations creating meaning, but rather as

    the result o specific kinds o speech acts (negating, echoing, pretending, allud-

    ing). Each can account with some success or a certain subset o ironic phe-

    nomena but not other subsets. It will be argued that in each case this occurs be-

    cause to a greater or lesser extent the theories ocus on trying to characterize

    irony substantively, as a kind o speech act, rather than examining the more gen-

    eral relational semiotic properties that give rise to ironic meaning. This article

     Alan Bailin: Hostra University. E-mail: [email protected]

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  • 8/19/2019 Bailin Chars Verbal Irony


      Alan Bailin

    proposes two conditions based on such semiotic properties. It argues that in ad-

    dition to creating a unified account o ironic phenomena, these conditions allow

    us to better understand how irony is related to metaphor and possibly other

    tropes as well.The article first considers our major modern approaches to verbal irony to

    show how each o these theories, while capturing some ironic phenomena, ails

    to account or other kinds. The intent here is to highlight problematic ironic phe-

    nomena that should be accounted or within a theory o irony.

    One o these approaches has its roots in the classical rhetoric account o

    irony, which characterizes verbal irony as saying one thing but meaning the

    opposite. Quintilian (2006: Book 8, Chapter 6, 54), or example, talks o irony

    as occurring “when what is expressed is quite contrary to what is meant.” Irony

    allows us “to censure with pretended praise, and to praise under the appearance

    o censure” (2006: Book 8, Chapter 6, 55). As an example o the first, he quotes

    Cicero as saying ironically

    () Your integrity, believe me, has cleared you; your modesty has rescued you;

     your past lie has saved you. (2006: Book 8, Chapter 6, 56)

    Although Quintilian does not explicate, it is reasonably clear that Cicero

    means the opposite o what he is saying: the man in question has neither integ-rity, nor modesty nor an honorable past lie. It is interesting to note that in char-

    acterizing verbal irony as saying the opposite o what one means, Quintilian con-

    siders irony to be a kind o allegory, a sort o metaphorical pretense. In act, he

    writes, “In the other kind o allegory, where what is expressed is quite contrary to

    what is meant, there is irony, which our rhetoricians call illusio, and which is

    understood either rom the mode o delivery, the character o the speaker, or the

    nature o the subject” (2006: Book 8, Chapter 6, 54). A similar approach to irony

    is ound in the pseudo-Ciceronian treatise Rhetorica ad Herennium (2004: 345) in

    which it is characterized in the ollowing manner: “An Allegory is drawn rom a

    contrast i, or example, one should mockingly call a spendthrif and voluptuary

    rugal and thrify.”

    Some twentieth century discussions take this approach to verbal irony as a

    kind o contrast or negation while dropping the traditional conception o it as in

    some way metaphorical. Perhaps the most significant o these is Grice (1975: 53),

    who writes that when a speaker A is ironic “[i]t is perectly obvious to A and his

    audience that what A has said or has made as i to say is something he does not

    believe and the audience knows that A knows that this is obvious to the audi-ence” (Grice 1975: 53). In using irony, the speaker transparently breaks the first

    maxim o quality, that one should not say what one believes to be alse (Grice

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    On the characteristics o verbal irony 

    1975: 46), and in so doing “implicates” (implies) something other than what is

    said. “This must be some obviously related proposition; the most obviously re-

    lated proposition is the contradictory o the one he purports to be putting or-

    ward” (Grice 1975: 53). In other words, or Grice, irony is a speech act in which theliteral meaning is negated to reveal the speaker’s intended meaning.

    But this conception o verbal irony as the act o saying one thing and mean-

    ing the opposite has been criticized by other modern scholars. Wilson and Sperber

    (1992: 54) note, or example, that cases o ironic understatement do not fit com-

    ortably within the traditional definition. Consider (2), uttered about someone

    who is blind with rage:

    () You can tell he’s upset.

    The utterance in this context is an ironic understatement that cannot be said in

    any way to figuratively imply the opposite o its ace-value literal meaning.

    In addition to understatement Wilson and Sperber (1992) make note o a

    number o other kinds o utterances that do not fit the traditional definition.

    One o the clearest counter-examples is that o ironic interjection. Consider,

    or example, (3) uttered on an extremely cold and unpleasant day in Tuscany

    in May:

    () Ah, Tuscany in May!

    While intuitively ironic, they argue, the utterance cannot be considered to be

    making a alse statement because it is an interjection and interjections do not

    express statements at all (Wilson and Sperber 1992: 55–56).

    Wilson and Sperber propose that a better way to characterize irony is as an

    “echo” o a thought that is used to express disapproval o what is echoed: “Verbal

    irony, we argue, invariably involves the expression o an attitude o disapproval …

    The speaker echoes a thought she attributes to someone else, while dissociating

    hersel rom it with anything rom mild ridicule to savage scorn” (Wilson and

    Sperber 1992: 60).

    For Wilson and Sperber, the act o echoing does not necessarily mean an ut-

    terance mentions the precise words o another person; the utterance need only

    bring to mind another’s thought. Thus (3) could be considered to echo the thought

    o someone appreciating Tuscany in springtime – uttered in the context outlined

    above to ridicule or mock such appreciation, whether or not it mentions the ac-

    tual words someone else used.In another paper, Sperber and Wilson expand the notion o echoing: “… we

    do claim that it is always possible to echo general norms or universal desires,

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  • 8/19/2019 Bailin Chars Verbal Irony


      Alan Bailin

    or their particular instantiations in individual cases” (Sperber and Wilson 1998:

    284). Thus an ironic use o (4) in a context in which things have gone terribly

    wrong becomes ironic by “echoing a representation o what is always desirable”

    (Sperber and Wilson 1998: 285).

    () Oh great. That’s nice.

    In cases such as this “the irony is best analyzed as involving the dissociative

    echoing o (possibly exaggerated) general desires or norms” (Sperber and Wilson

    1998: 285).

    Echo theory can certainly account or cases that cannot be accounted or by

    the more traditional perspective o viewing irony as an act o negating. Neverthe-

    less, there are problems with this approach. Echoing is a clearly defined pattern

    when one speaker repeats what another has just said as in (5):

    () a. I like ice cream.

      b. You like ice cream. Ok let’s get you some.

    Wilson and Sperber’s extension o the concept to include instances such as

    (3), however, is vague and relies on an unspecified process to connect the ut-

    terance to the idea or attitude echoed. As Clark and Gerrig (1984: 124) note,the theory “does not describe any criteria or deciding what is a possible im-

    plicit echo and what is not.” The process at work really seems to be that o

    allusion: an utterance alluding to some idea or attitude. Calling such allu-

    sions echoes does not shed any light on the process that is purported to be at

    work in irony – except to suggest that the process involves resemblance o

    some sort.

    There are, as well, cases o irony which do not seem to be easily under-

    stood as echoes o any sort. Clark and Gerrig (1984) argue that Jonathan Swif’s

    “A Modest Proposal”

    … cannot be viewed as echoic mention … This essay is ofen pointed to as a model piece o

    irony. To explain the irony, the mention theory would have to say that the entire essay was

    an echoic mention. But o what? It is implausible that anyone had ever uttered the entire

    essay or expressed its entire contents or that dining on Irish children was ever a part o

    “popular wisdom or received opinions” … (Clark and Gerrig 1984: 123)

    Nevertheless, it should be noted that the traditional theory also cannot ac-count or this classic literary ironic work. Consider the ollowing selection rom

    “A Modest Proposal”:

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    On the characteristics o verbal irony 

    () A child will make two Dishes at an Entertainment or Friends; and when the

    Family dines alone, the ore or hind Quarter will make a reasonable Dish: and

    seasoned with a little Pepper or Salt, will be very good Boiled on the ourth

    Day, especially in Winter . (Swif 1973: 504)

    Even though the intent o the essay is not to suggest that children would be a

    “reasonable dish,” the essay cannot be viewed as simply saying this and meaning

    the opposite, that is, that children would not be a “reasonable dish.” The ocus

    is rather on mocking what is being said. In order to address the inability o both

    the traditional and echo theory to account or clear instances o irony such as “A

    Modest Proposal,” Clark and Gerrig propose that irony be considered a kind o

    pretense: “Treated as pretense … Swif’s irony makes good sense. Swif was pre-

    tending to speak as a member o the English ruling class to an English audience.

    He expected his readers to recognize the pretense and to see how by affecting the

    pretense he was denouncing English attitudes toward the Irish” (Clark and Gerrig

    1984: 123)

    In more general terms, Clark and Gerrig define ironic pretense in the ollow-

    ing manner:

    Suppose S is speaking to A, the primary addressee, and to A’, who may be present or absent,

    real or imaginary. In speaking ironically, S is pretending to be S’ speaking to A’. What S’ issaying is, in one way or another, patently uninormed or injudicious, worthy o a “hostile or

    derogatory judgment or a eeling such as indignation or contempt” (Grice, 1978, p. 124). A’

    in ignorance, is intended to miss this pretense, to take S as speaking sincerely. But A, as part

    o the “inner circle” (to use Fowler’s phrase), is intended to see everything – the pretense,

    S’s injudiciousness, A’s ignorance, and hence S’s attitude toward S’, A’, and what S’ said. S’

    and A’ may be recognizable individuals (like the TV weather orecaster) or people o recog-

    nizable types (like opportunistic politicians). (Clark and Gerrig 1984: 122)

    Intuitively, the pretense theory would seem to capture something about ver-

    bal irony, at least as it is practiced by a literary master such as Swif. Certainly

    ironic texts like “A Modest Proposal” can pretend to be earnestly saying some-

    thing while at the same time mocking what they are saying. And just as certainly

    it is quite possible to miss the irony. A naïve reader, such as a high school student

    who takes Swif at his word would be, in effect, a victim o irony.

    Nevertheless, there are clearly cases o irony in which the ironist is not en-

    gaged in the act o pretending – not at least in any standard sense (c. Holdcrof

    1983: 507–511). Cases where someone says something that is polite and true but

    the speaker does not have the typical accompanying attitude are one kind ocounter-example. Consider a situation in which someone is given a painting

    which she does not really want because it will be extremely inconvenient to find

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      Alan Bailin

    a place or it in her home. Nevertheless, she might think it beautiul and so ironi-

    cally but truthully say

    () It is a beautiul painting you have given me.

    She does not need not to pretend that she considers the painting beautiul or

    it to be ironically understood that she does not want the gif. In act, what she

    says can be understood as ironic even i she does not pretend to be pleased with

    the gif. She can use acial expressions or a less than enthusiastic tone o voice to

    make clear that, as lovely as the picture is, she is not pleased with being its recip-

    ient. Moreover, it is quite possible that the addressee could understand the ironic

    intent and take it as a way o remaining polite while expressing displeasure.

    Similarly, cases o understatement such as Wilson and Sperber present in

    identiying problems with the traditional theory can be ironic without any pre-

    tense. Consider someone who tells a riend about having nearly been hit by a car

    and the riend replies:

    () That could ruin your whole day.

    Here again the pretense that the pretense theory considers necessary to verbal

    irony is missing.In addition, it is not at all clear that cases o irony in which the speaker says

    the opposite o what he means necessarily involve pretense. So, or example,

    () Oh great!

    uttered in a context in which the speaker means anything but great is neverthe-

    less ironic, even though the speaker makes no pretense that he thinks what has

    happened is great and the person to whom the remark is addressed is under no

    illusion that he thinks so.

    Finally, pretense theory assumes that the pretense must be critical, a con-

    cept based on a proposal made in Grice (1978). Recognizing that the traditional

     view needed modification to include speaker attitude, Grice added a proviso that

    someone who is being ironic must “reflect a hostile or derogatory judgment or a

    eeling such as indignation or contempt” (1978: 124). The proposal was adopted

    not only by pretense theory but also by echo theory, as is clear rom the proviso

    that the echo must include an “attitude o disapproval” (Sperber and Wison 1992:

    60; see also Kauer 1981 and Dunmire and Kauer 1996).However, there are examples o irony where no such critical act o judgment

    is discernible. Grice, in discussing this extra condition, notes that certain utter-

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    On the characteristics o verbal irony 

    ances in which the speaker is taken to have an approving rather than a critical

    attitude must be called “playul, not ironical”: “I can or example say What a

    scoundrel you are! when I am well disposed toward you, but to say that will be

    playul, not ironical, and will be inappropriate unless there is some shadow ojustification …” (Grice 1978: 124). In effect, then, Grice implicitly admits the pro-

    posal excludes a class o phenomena that could otherwise be considered ironic.

    This seems to be arbitrary and, in act, other scholars have identified this class

    as a kind o irony, including Quintilian (2006: Book 8, Chapter 6, 55), who, as

    noted above, includes as ironical cases where there is “praise under the appear-

    ance o censure” (see also Attardo 2000: 796).

    Some scholars have argued that even i it is not explicit there must be an

    underlying critical inerence i the utterance is to be viewed as ironic. Garmendia

    (2010), or example, argues that an ironic use o (10)

    () You definitely made a mess o it.

    In relation to a situation in which the person addressed has done very well on an

    exam must have some critical element that can be inerred – or example, that the

    speaker is tired o the addressee’s complaining (Garmendia 2010: 405–406). This

    seems orced. No doubt a speaker could use (10) in a context where it could be

    interpreted that way. However, such phrases are used all the time in a playul wayto congratulate people (in order perhaps not to seem too effusive) without anyone

    interpreting them as in any way critical, although they are understood as involv-

    ing an ironic reversal o meaning. Indeed, one would have to be quite creative to

    make Grice’s “scoundrel” utterance seem critical. The point is simple: a counter-

    example to a theory is not negated by showing it might  under some circumstances

    be interpreted in a way in which it will fit the theory.

    Let us now move on to the allusional-pretense theory o verbal irony that at-

    tempts to combine eatures o both the echo and pretense theories:

    Ironic utterances are intended to be allusive in that they are intended to call the listener’s

    attention to some expectation that has been violated in some way … but we propose that

    echoing or echoic interpretation are not the only ways that allusion to unulfilled expecta-

    tions is accomplished in ordinary discourse.

    Pragmatic insincerity is a criterial eature o ironic utterances. The standard pragmatic

    theory … considered only one type o insincerity, semantic or propositional insincerity,

    namely, uttering alse assertions … This ormulation is too restrictive because there are a

     variety o utterance types that cannot be counteractual because the criterion o truth is

    simply not applicable. Among such utterance types are compliments, questions, and re-

    quests. Such utterance types are neither true nor alse, but they can be sincere or insincere.

    The construct o pragmatic insincerity rather than truth is thus the more general because it

    is the more inclusive. (Kumon-Nakamura et al. 1995: 5)

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      Alan Bailin

    At first glance this syncretic theory would appear to achieve its goals. It avoids

    the overly restrictive scope o the echo theory, making clear that verbal irony need

    only allude to an expectation rather than “echo” a desire or belie – thereby

    avoiding the use o a term which, as noted above, seems to add nothing to theconception o allusion in relation to norms and belies. The broader understand-

    ing o “pragmatic insincerity” allows it to apply not only to the pretense o coun-

    teractual verbal irony but also to cases in which the utterance does not make a

    truth conditional statement. It may also be pointed out that the theory explicitly

    rules out the necessity o a critical act on the part o the speaker (Kumon-

    Nakamura et al. 1995: 4).

    Nevertheless, this theory encounters some o the same problems as pretense

    and echo theory: the speech acts o pretending and alluding are not neces-

    sary conditions or irony. Consider again (7) in the context described above. The

    speaker cannot be considered to be pragmatically insincere: she is telling the

    truth about the gif and may through her tone o voice or acial expressions also

    make clear her displeasure with it. It cannot thereore be identified as ironic with-

    in the allusional-pretense theory any more than it can within the pretense theory.

    In addition, using “allusion” instead o the presumably more specific term

    “echo” does not allow the allusional-pretense theory to handle “A Modest Pro-

    posal” any better than echo theory. In what way does a selection rom this essay

    such as (6) “call the listener’s [or reader’s – AB] attention to some expectationthat has been violated in some way,” as the authors o this theory suggest in the

    quotation above? Without doubt this amous piece is intended to mock certain

    utilitarian belies and can be said to call them to mind (or echo them) in a vague

    way – but does it allude to an expectation that has not been met? It certainly does

    not in any sel-evident manner.

    Text comprehension and normative


    In the review above, we have seen that one theory can account or one class o

    ironic phenomena while another theory can account or another class by charac-

    terizing ironic utterances as one or more kinds o speech act: negating, echoing,

    pretending, alluding. It is clear that such theories have been unable to account or

    ironic phenomena in a comprehensive way, leading Colston and Gibbs (2007: 4)

    to wonder whether irony “is simply a amily o related phenomena that each re-

    quire their own theoretical approach …” Certainly, this is a real possibility. How-ever, it is also possible that we have not identified crucial aspects that are com-

    mon to all orms, simply because, as we have seen, the theoretical discussions

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    On the characteristics o verbal irony 

    ocus on different kinds o substantive speech acts and consequently different

    sorts o ironies (see also Attardo’s (2000) detailed review o the literature). What

    may be necessary is to ocus less on the specific acts in which irony is used, and

    to examine more closely rom a semiotic perspective the relations that give rise toironic interpretation, no matter the speech act in which it is ound.

    Let us note what all our approaches we have examined make clear – irony

    does not exist in a vacuum. It can only occur as part o an utterance in a text

    (whether oral or written), and never as part o the meaning o sentences in the

    abstract. Negating, echoing, pretending, alluding are all speech acts that relate to

    utterances in texts, not sentence types. Since irony is a property o utterance or

    textual meaning, we need to look at those aspects o meaning relating to the ut-

    terance or text itsel, and not to the sentence, phrase or word type that is uttered.

    So, beore making specific claims that can unction as necessary conditions or

     verbal irony, we need to look more closely at utterances and the texts o which

    they are part.

    One basic way in which the textual meaning o language differs rom the

    meaning o word or sentence types is that textual meaning always involves the

    use o context, that is inormation or assumptions which are not part o the text

    itsel. A theory o text or utterance meaning presented in Bellert (1970) makes

    the relational role o non-textual background knowledge clear. According to this

    approach, the meaning o a text (comprised o two or more utterances) can beunderstood as the inerences (called “consequences”) we can draw rom the text,

    including inerences we can make with the help o background assumptions but

    not including inerences we can make just rom the background itsel. The ormal

    construction o this approach is omitted because it is not relevant to the pro-

    posals presented here about irony. (The interested reader is directed to Bellert

    1970 and 1980, and Bellert and Weingartner 1982.) What is important to note is

    that within this approach the ull meaning o a text (and the utterances which

    comprise them) is to a great extent dependent on non-textual background propo-

    sitions (see also Grice 1975: 50). Since the term “proposition” may suggest that the

    non-textual propositions must be true or actual, this article uses the more gen-

    eral “assumptions” in what ollows.

    These non-textual background assumptions can be assumptions that deter-

    mine the core meaning o a word or phrase. So in (11),

    () a. Some athletes smoke

      b. Not all athletes smoke.

    we can iner that the speaker is talking about a class o humans because o our

    general background assumption that athletes are human.

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      Alan Bailin

    However, not all non-textual inormation relates to the core meaning o words

    and phrases. When someone says (11a) we conventionally iner (11b), although

    there is arguably nothing in the meaning o the words which necessarily leads us

    to this inerence (Davis 2010). Within a Gricean ramework these are called “non-conventional implicatures” (Davis 2010), but since nothing within our analysis

    depends on this characterization or on the Gricean maxims to which they relate,

    this is not o particular relevance to our purposes here. What is relevant is some-

    thing little discussed in linguistic pragmatic theory; that is, the contextual back-

    ground assumptions that allow us to make such inerences. In this case the iner-

    ence would involve a background assumption o the sort ound in (12):

    () Typically i someone says “some x  does y ,” then he means “not all x  does y .”

    The adverb “typically” is used here to indicate that while we may consider

    the inerence to be usual or normative, we do not consider it to be necessary. In

    act, we can drop assumptions o this sort whenever we encounter a situation

    where what we assume to be true (or what is said to be true) is logically incon-

    sistent with what we would iner using the assumption. Consider how easily we

    drop (12) in the ollowing context:

    () Some athletes smoke and perhaps all do.

    So, the inerence in (11b) that not all athletes smoke directly reers to the proposi-

    tional content o (11a), but depends as well on non-textual assumptions that do

    not relate to the core meaning o the words and phrases, and that can be dropped

    easily when they are contradicted by statements in a text.

    One significant subclass o background assumptions not related to core se-

    mantic meaning is the set concerning attitudes or emotions which are assumed to

    be typical o a speaker producing a particular kind o utterance in a particular

    kind o context. These, it will be argued, play a crucial role in ironic interpreta-

    tion. Beore this argument can be made, however, it is necessary to look a little

    more closely at properties o these background assumptions, in particular those

    relating to inconsistency.

    When someone looks outside and says

    () It is a beautiul day outside.

    we may iner that the speaker is pleased based on an assumption such as (15)about what such a statement says about the speaker’s attitude in a context where

    she is looking outside:

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    On the characteristics o verbal irony 

    () Saying it is beautiul outside while looking outside typically means the

    speaker is pleased.

    Similarly, consider someone thanking another person or a gif by uttering(16):

    () Thank you or that thoughtul gif.

    We may iner in this context that the speaker is pleased to receive the gif, based

    on an assumption we make that is something like (17):

    () I someone thanks someone or a gif and praises the gif, typically the

    speaker is happy with the gif.

    Like other inerences based on normative assumptions, the inerences based

    on assumptions such as (15) and (17) are inerences based on assumptions that

    are highly sensitive to context. It may well be that we know or assume the person

    remarking on the weather is doing so simply as a matter o act and takes no plea-

    sure in the observation (perhaps because she is busy at work); we may believe

    that the speaker uttering the “thank you” and the praise or the gif is merely

    being polite and indeed has no desire or, nor any interest in the gif. Just as orother normative assumptions, in these cases, when we have specific knowledge

    or assumptions about a context that would lead to inerences inconsistent with

    those rom the normative assumption, we do not use the normative assumption to

    draw inerences.

    In act, at least or inerences concerning speaker attitude, the inconsistency

    that leads us to avoid making an inerence rom a normative assumption need not

    be one that is taken as necessarily ollowing rom what we know or assume; it

    may be simply based on some other assumption we believe typically or norma-

    tively holds. Frequently, we consider that holding one attitude or belie typically

    implies that the speaker does not hold some other attitude or belie. This means

    that we can consider as inconsistent attitudes that we take to be normatively or

    typically incompatible.

    So, or example, i we consider someone to be happy about something, we

    may, based on normative assumptions, iner that the person is not angry that this

    thing has happened. Nevertheless, it is quite possible to be both happy and angry

    about the same thing under certain conditions:

    () I am both happy and angry about the election results – happy that it was the

    right outcome and angry that the outcome was not more decisive.

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  • 8/19/2019 Bailin Chars Verbal Irony


      Alan Bailin

    There is nothing contradictory about this that might move us to assume that one

    or the other property is not meant literally as there would be, or example, i one

    were to say:

    () That cat is a dog.

    Since cases like (18) do not imply a contradiction but are only unusual or

    marked cases, it is best to speak o two attitudes that we consider normatively

    or typically to preclude each other as simply being normatively inconsistent

    (rather than contradictory). In light o this, the generic term “inconsistency”

    will be used in what ollows where the inconsistency may be either normative

    or logical.

    Two necessary conditions

    A consideration o normative assumptions about attitude and their relation to

    what we assume to be the speaker’s actual attitude can allow us to ormulate

    necessary conditions or irony (or more precisely, ironic interpretation) that are

    based on semiotic relations between assumptions rather than the substance o

    speech acts. It can be argued that inconsistencies between background (non-textual) assumptions about the attitude a speaker normatively has in using a par-

    ticular kind o utterance and background (non-textual) assumptions about the

    attitude he or she actually has – are a necessary component o verbal irony (c.

    Kauer 1981: 504). Irony can then be understood as an interpretive strategy we use

    under the ollowing two conditions pertaining to interpretive assumptions about

    normative and actual speaker attitudes:

    i. Inconsistency Condition: we assume the utterance normatively or typically to

    imply a certain attitude on the part o the speaker, but assume as well that the

    speaker producing the utterance has an actual attitude inconsistent with

    what is normally or typically implied.

    ii. Implicitness Condition: the speaker’s actual attitude is not directly stated by

    the speaker in the immediate context.

    These conditions allow us to account not only or cases in which the speaker

    means the opposite o what he says and where the intent is critical, but also or

    cases where the irony is “playul,” as Grice put it. It can help us to account or

    cases o clear echoic irony and cases o pretense such as “A Modest Proposal” thatcannot be considered echoes. It can allow us to account, as well, or cases where

    no pretense at all is involved.

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    On the characteristics o verbal irony 

    Beore proceeding to the problematic cases, let us look at how the conditions

    can account or “traditional” cases o irony where the speaker says one thing and

    means the opposite. Quintilian uses (1) repeated here as (20) as an example o a

    situation in which the speaker is ironically suggesting the contrary to what hesays about the speaker’s integrity, modesty and personal history:

    () Your integrity, believe me, has cleared you; your modesty has rescued you;

     your past lie has saved you.

    For examples such as (20) the traditional approach o Grice (1975) appears

    perectly adequate. However, urther examination o (20) reveals that while there

    are contexts in which we can interpret (20) as ironic, there are others in which it

    cannot be. The traditional approach does not permit us to distinguish the two; the

    Inconsistency Condition proposed above does allow us to differentiate.

    Suppose, or example, the speaker does not believe that the virtues o the

    person he is addressing actually helped him, but is attempting not to ironically

    criticize but to praise the addressee in order to comort him, to make him eel that

    he has come through his travails by the strength o his character. In this context

    (20) is not ironic even i the addressee knows that the speaker is merely pretend-

    ing in order to make him eel good and the speaker knows himsel that his pre-

    tense is obvious. The traditional perspective o Grice (1975) affords us no means odistinguishing the ironical use o (20) rom the context in which it unctions as a

    transparent lie. The Inconsistency Condition, however, does provide such a

    means. Note that in the case o the transparent lie, the speaker’s actual attitude is

    one o praise and that this is the same as the attitude one would normatively have

    using (20) in a non-ironic way. According to the Inconsistency Condition then,

    we cannot view the utterance as ironical since the speaker’s actual attitude is not

    an attitude inconsistent with what is normatively held. I, on the other hand, the

    speaker’s attitude is one o disapproval, it can be seen as inconsistent with the

    speaker attitude o praise normatively associated with such an utterance, and

    according to the Inconsistency Condition the utterance can be considered ironic.

    The issue is also addressed by the condition proposed in Grice (1978: 124),

    and adopted by both echo and pretense theory, that the speaker must have a crit-

    ical attitude. Clearly, this condition too would exclude rom the domain o irony

    utterances in which the intent is to praise rather than disapprove. However, un-

    like Grice’s proposal, the Inconsistency Condition can be shown to be at work in

    non-critical irony, just as it is in the critical sort.

    Consider the ollowing, uttered in relation to a brilliant political decision:

    () What an incredibly stupid thing to do!

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      Alan Bailin

    According to the Inconsistency Condition, i the speaker o (21) is assumed to

    be praising the political decision in question, then it can be understood as ironic

    because the speaker’s actual attitude o admiration is inconsistent with the criti-

    cal attitude that is typically assumed when using an utterance o this sort. On theother hand, i the speaker is taken to have a critical attitude towards the political

    decision, as normative assumptions about such an utterance would suggest,

    then, according to the Inconsistency Condition, it cannot be ironic because what

    we assume about the speaker’s actual attitude is consistent with the normative

    assumptions. The utterance then is simply what it appears to be: a straightor-

    ward criticism.

    So, whether the speaker’s actual attitude is critical or not, what is necessary

    or an utterance to be understood as ironic is the inconsistency between what

    we take to be the speaker’s actual attitude and what we take as the normative or

    typical speaker attitude associated with such an utterance. In other words, what

    is important is not a specific speaker attitude but the relation between it and a

    certain normative assumption about speaker attitude.

    That said, it should be noted that there is another area in which the proposal

    above offers a more complete account o the phenomena that the traditional the-

    ory identifies as ironic. The Implicitness Condition proposed above makes clear

    that we can only consider an utterance ironic when the speaker’s actual attitude

    cannot be directly inerred rom the immediate context o the utterance, a pointnoted by neither Grice nor rhetoricians such as Quintilian.

    Consider the ollowing:

    () a. Despite your good qualities, you have behaved in a contemptible manner.

      b. Nevertheless, your integrity, believe me, has cleared you; your modesty

    has rescued you; your past lie has saved you.

    As long as we assume the speaker believes (22a) to be literally true, in interpret-

    ing what he says, we have no choice but to take (22b) as literal as well, not as an

    ironic interpretation in which the speaker means the opposite o what he is say-

    ing. In the context o (22a) it would makes no sense or the person addressed to

    ask (22):

    () Are you suggesting that I am not modest?

    The conditions can also provide a more complete account o instances

    which the traditional approach finds problematic. For example, the conditionscan provide a more complete account o the cases o understatement that are

    used by echo theory to show the limitations o the traditional approach. Let

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    On the characteristics o verbal irony 

    us consider again (2) repeated here as (24), uttered about someone in extreme


    () You can tell he’s upset.

    According to echo theory, (24) can be considered an instance o ironic under-

    statement presumably because it echoes the utterance o a matter-o-act obser-

     vation and in so doing mocks the very possibility that the behavior o the person

    being reerred to could be seen as normal, as such an utterance would generally

    suggest. However, here too, urther examination shows the crucial role in ironic

    interpretation o the relation between what we assume to be the actual and what

    we assume to be typical speaker attitude.

    Consider the possibility that we take the speaker o (24) to have a matter-o-

    act attitude about the person’s rage. Assume as well that both the speaker and

    those he is addressing have accepted the bad behavior, and that to some extent at

    least, the speaker is critical o the act that they have:

    () a. You can tell he’s upset.

      b. I guess that he expresses his eelings is good. Unortunately, the way we

    accept it you would think everyone expresses it that way.

    The utterance (25a) in that context would fit the conditions or irony proposed by

    Sperber and Wilson: it invokes the typical matter-o-act attitude o other uses o

    the utterance, and the speaker is critical o the attitude that is echoed. Neverthe-

    less, the utterance cannot be understood as ironic because the normative speaker

    attitude is the speaker’s actual attitude.

    Now consider what happens i we have a context in which we can iner that

    the speaker has an attitude inconsistent with the typical matter-o-act attitude

    towards the behavior:

    () a. You can tell he’s upset

      b. He is handling himsel in such a mild mannered way.

    Given the act that the person in question has been in a rage, the obvious al-

    sity o (26b) makes it very clear that the speaker intends it as a misstatement.

    This allows (and possibly even encourages) us to assume that quite possibly the

    speaker’s actual attitude is not really matter-o-act but rather one o surprise or

    disgust. As the proposal suggests, in this context what we take to be the speaker’sactual attitude can lead to an ironic interpretation since the speaker’s actual atti-

    tude is inconsistent with the matter-o-act attitude that normatively is associated

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      Alan Bailin

    with a statement such as (26a). The echo theory has no way o differentiating be-

    tween (25) and (26) because it considers only a negative or critical attitude to be a

    defining property o irony, rather than the relation between the speaker’s actual

    attitude and the normatively expected attitude.The conditions proposed above can also provide an account o exclamations

    that echo theory uses to show the limitations o the traditional approach. Con-

    sider again (3) repeated here as (27):

    () Ah, Tuscany in May!

    According to the Inconsistency Condition, (27) can be ironic because an ex-

    clamation o that sort is typically associated with a pleased attitude, while pre-

    sumably the ironic speaker, aced with bad weather, is eeling not quite so pleased

    and thus has an attitude which can be considered inconsistent with what can be

    considered the normative attitude. Just as or echo theory, there is nothing in this

    proposal that depends o the utterance itsel making a statement.

    Let us now look at irony that involves pretense. Such texts must also meet

    the proposed conditions i they are to be interpreted ironically. The pretense o

    “A Modest Proposal” depends crucially on the act that we assume the author

    has a scornul attitude that is not expressed in the text and that the earnest re-

    spectul attitude typical o the writer o a ormal proposal o a treatise is incon-sistent with the writer’s actual attitude. I one has doubts that the irony depends

    on this inconsistency between the unexpressed scorn and what we take to be

    the typical attitude o a writer o such a text, consider whether or not we would

    interpret this essay as ironic i we believed or assumed that Swif had an attitude

    o sincerity in making the proposal, and sincerely believed that eating Irish chil-

    dren is a reasonable solution to the problems raised in the essay. The answer

    is obvious. Similarly, imagine i Swif had explicitly stated that he scorned the

    proposal by saying something like “I scorn the stupid brutality o what I am about

    to propose …” No matter how the proposal was presented afer such an explicit

    expression o the writer’s true attitude, an ironic interpretation would not be


    The proposed conditions also provide an explanation o ironic victims (Clark

    and Gerrig 1984: 122), such as someone who does not understand that, or exam-

    ple, “A Modest Proposal” is not an actual proposal. The act that an ironic inter-

    pretation requires that the speaker’s actual attitude be implicit makes it easy to

    see that someone who does not make the correct assumptions about the speak-

    er’s actual attitude necessarily misses the ironic intent.Finally, the conditions proposed above can account or irony in which there

    is no pretense at all about what is directly expressed (c. Holdcrof 1983: 507–511).

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    On the characteristics o verbal irony 

    Consider again (7) repeated here as (28) uttered by someone who has just received

    a gif she does not want:

    () It is a beautiul painting you have given me.

    In this case it is the inconsistency between the normative attitude o gratitude

    (typical when praising a gif) and the speaker’s actual implicit desire not to have

    the gif that, according to the proposal, gives rise to irony. The Implicitness Con-

    dition is particularly important in this case. Adding words that make the attitude

    explicit, something that can be directly inerred rom the utterance, destroys the


    () It is a beautiul painting you have given me, but I don’t want it.

    When the attitude is explicit the speaker may be said to be plain spoken, but cer-

    tainly not ironic.

    Concluding remarks

    While the proposed conditions allow us to deepen our understanding o ironicinterpretation, there are important questions still lef unanswered. For example,

    what distinctive kinds o inerences or distinctive ways o letting us make iner-

    ences does irony offer? Also, what cues and clues do we use to identiy when

    ironic interpretation is appropriate (see Livnat 2011)?

    That said, the two conditions do allow us to understand why it may be di-

    ficult to express the content o an irony. De Saussure and Schulz (2009: 406) note

    that “an ironic utterance cannot be translated into a ull-fledged proposition

    without loosing [sic] its ironic component.” They go on to argue that this is be-

    cause the essential content o irony is non-propositional. The proposals here

    would suggest a rather different understanding. The difficulty results not rom

    the act that the subjective attitude is essentially non-propositional but rom the

    act that irony is the result o a relation between propositions. While the general

    properties o this relation can be articulated, the specifics or particular utter-

    ances in particular texts and contexts is more problematic – especially since it is

    a matter o expressing the meaning o that relation in terms o the particular text

    and context.

    The proposal made in this article also allows us to relate ironic interpretationto the interpretation o metaphor and possibly other tropes as well. Metaphor,

    like irony, can be understood to rely on typical or normative assumptions and

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      Alan Bailin

    their relation to what we assume to be true. However, the normative assumptions

    that play a role in irony and metaphor are quite different and have a different re-

    lation to propositions we assume to be true in the context o interpretation. In

    ironic interpretation, as we have seen, the assumptions relate to typical and ac-tual speaker attitudes and are inconsistent with the attitudes we take the speaker

    to actually have. In the case o metaphor (see or example, Bailin 1998: 107–126;

    Beardsley 1958: 125), the assumptions relate to typical and actual properties o

    the entities to which words and phrases reer. These are properties we take to be

    true o the entity or entities reerred to in the metaphor – in the context o inter-

    pretation. So, or example, in the case o a conventional metaphor such as “that

    little baby is a delicate rose,” we use the assumption that roses are typically very

    pretty in order to understand the metaphor; we attribute the typical property to

    the baby reerred to by the metaphor because we take the property (or at least

    assume the speaker takes the property) to be true o the baby.

    The similarities and differences between these two tropes, in act, suggest the

    possibility o a wider application to the approach used here. Irony may be one o

    a number o tropes that can be characterized by the way normative assumptions

    are connected by semiotic relations to what we assume to be true when trying to

    understand what is being said. This perspective may provide us with a distinctly

    semiotic way o understanding how tropes signiy.


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     Alan Bailin (b. 1951) is an associate proessor at Hostra University . His research interests include figurative language, semiotic and

    semantic/pragmatic analysis o linguistic comprehension, readability, and the

    critical assessment o research. His publications include “The evolution o aca-

    demic libraries: The networked environment” (with A. Grastein, 2005); “Online

    library tutorials, narratives, and scripts” (with A. Peña, 2007); “Ambiguity and

    metaphor” (2008); and The critical assessment of research: Traditional and new

    methods of evaluation (with A. Grastein, 2010).