You Didn't Mean That, Did You? Exploring the Roles of Conventionality and Context in Interpreting Ironic Remarks

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Communication Sciences and Disorders


Linda M. Milosky


Irony comprehension, Sarcasm, Graded salience

Subject Categories



Ironic remarks in which speakers mean the opposite of what they say create a comprehension challenge for the listener. The means by which children derive the speaker's intended meaning were explored in the present study. Specifically, hypotheses about how young children interpret ironic remarks were tested to examine the role of context and the wording of the remark itself.

Experimenter-generated stimulus stories were created and carefully validated for use in examining irony comprehension. Each stimulus story contained a context that varied in terms of situational negativity and a target remark, literal or ironic, that followed. The contexts were divided into three groups according to raters' perceptions and statistical analysis: strongly negative, weakly negative, or positive. The selected target remarks were categorized as more or less likely to be used ironically according to raters' perceptions. Combinations of story contexts and target remarks were verified for plausibility between the remark and its preceding context. A final set of experimental stories was created for use in subsequent experiments.

Irony comprehension in children, ages 7 and 8, with typically developing language skills was explored using these experimenter-generated story contexts and target remarks. Following each story and remark, children were asked questions to determine their understanding of the components of irony comprehension: speaker meaning, speaker affect, and speaker intent. Target ironic remarks were either conventional or novel/situation-specific. It was hypothesized that conventional remarks would be easier to comprehend since they are more likely to be familiar to the child. Results indicated that children demonstrated better comprehension of speaker meaning for conventional remarks than novel/situation-specific remarks but no significant differences between remark types were found for inferring affect or intent. Story contexts also varied by situational negativity: strongly negative, weakly negative, and positive. Results indicated no significant differences in irony comprehension between different degrees of situational negativity. The role of verbal working memory in the irony comprehension task was also examined and no significant relationship was found.


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