Irony, logic, and conversation

Lay Summary 

This project aims to be the most thorough study ever of verbal irony, a ubiquitous though under-theorized aspect of language, communication, and thought. Although verbal irony is one of the most common varieties of non-literal communication, and is discussed in work by Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintillian, serious theoretical engagement with the mechanics and psycho-linguistics of irony — what exactly it is, and how it works — is a much more recent phenomenon. That only became possible at a certain stage in the sophistication of the pertinent overlapping sub-fields within linguistics, psychology, and philosophy. Verbal irony is traditionally defined as the trope in which the speaker's intention is to communicate exactly the opposite of the literal meaning of the expression used. (A classic instance in the literature is Grice's (1975: 33) "X is a fine friend!" said in a context in which it is mutually known to speaker and audience that X just double-crossed the speaker.) Recent work on the topic goes well beyond the bounds of these "meaning-inversion" cases to also include a subtle and nuanced range of cases. (A brief sample of non-meaning-inversion irony might include admonishing an obnoxious show-off by saying: 'You sure know a lot!', or making a joke in the midst of a drastic downpour by saying 'Oh no! I forgot to water the lawn!) Hence the early stages of this project will work toward a more broadly applicable definition, along the following lines: verbal irony is a variety of non-literal communication in which the speaker's intention is to communicate something (more or less determinate) which stands in a contextually evident relation IR to what the words uttered literally mean.


The overall research question is to solve for IR, something that speakers do unreflectively and on-the-fly rather well, but something that we have yet to formally understand. Grice's (1975) "Logic and Conversation" was so groundbreaking in this area (as it was in several others) that subsequent theories of verbal irony are self-styled as "post-Gricean ". Some serious challenges to Grice's framework have emerged in the interim. My working hypothesis is that a neo-Gricean approach to irony, which tweaks certain features of the framework to accommodate some of these challenges, promises the most satisfactory, comprehensive theory. This is in part because the Gricean framework is best suited to smoothly integrate into widely accepted views of language, communication, and thought, across the humanities and cognitive sciences. Even though questions about the nature of verbal irony overlap with several other disciplines, this research project is focused on the philosophical aspects of these questions. Hence, given the Socratic, dialogical aspect of philosophical research, the two biggest resource needs for this project are (i) support for student involvement and (ii) research and dissemination costs.


The ultimate goal is a book on verbal irony with Oxford University Press, the top publisher in the field. Theoretically taming verbal irony, and integrating it into a comprehensive picture of language, will be a monumental achievement for the philosophy of language, for the borderlands across the humanities and cognitive sciences. More broadly, though, it will impact many aspects of the scientific study of our abilities to think and communicate -- even on into artificial intelligence projects within computer science and engineering, concerning as it does a prevalent component of everyday language use. Irony is a thoroughly mundane aspect of linguistic communication which is as yet barely on the radar screen of much serious theoretical work.


Adapted from

Social Sciences And Humanities Research Council
Newfoundland and Labrador
Start date 
1 Jan 2018