It’s Fascinating Research: The Cognition of Verbal Irony
Penny Pexman
University of Calgary

Verbal irony is nonliteral language that makes salient a discrepancy between expectations and reality and conveys an attitude indirectly; sarcasm is one form of verbal irony. Appreciation of verbal irony requires complex inferences about a speaker’s beliefs and intentions. For researchers who study verbal irony, a critical question is: How do we grasp the meaning of ironic language? The parallel constraint-satisfaction approach holds promise as an answer to this question. By this account, multiple cues to ironic intent, such as tone of voice, incongruity, and knowledge of the speaker, are processed rapidly and in parallel and this information is coordinated with the utterance itself in order to construct a coherent interpretation which is the best fit for the activated information. Recently, we have tested the viability of this account using a variety of processing measures. Further, research with individuals who struggle with irony comprehension (typically developing children, individuals with autism spectrum disorder) has provided new clues about the complex process by which ironic meaning is inferred.