Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Dr. Albert Katz


This research is designed to investigate the contextual components utilized to convey sarcastic verbal irony, testing whether theoretical components deemed as necessary for creating a sense of irony are, in fact, necessary. A novel task was employed: Given a set of statements that out-of-context were not rated as sarcastic, participants were instructed to either generate discourse context that would make the statements sarcastic or meaningful (without further specification). In a series of studies these generated contexts were shown to differ from one another along the dimensions presumed as necessary (failed expectation, pragmatic insincerity, negative tension and presence of a victim) and along stylistic components (as indexed by the LIWC). However, none of these components were found to be necessary. Indeed in each case the items rated as highest in sarcasm were often at the lowest levels on the putative “necessary” characteristic.

The ratings were then used to develop an online reading task to investigate the effect of negative tension on the processing of sarcastic and literal statements. Three groups of items were taken from the previous studies to form high negative tension; low negative tension; and literal statements. Reading times for seven key areas were compared across the three groups and it was found that in two of the critical areas, the low negative items were processed significantly more slowly than the other two sets of items. The literal and high negative items however did not differ significantly in their processing times. These findings support the predictions of direct access models and contradict the predictions of the standard pragmatic model of language processing. The findings from the studies are seen as consistent with constraint satisfaction models of sarcasm processing in which various linguistic and extralinguistic information provide probabilistic (but not necessary) support for or against a sarcastic interpretation.