Children’s Development of Grasping and Producing Irony

A Literature Review on The Current State of Child Psychology

Term Paper, 2017

11 Pages, Grade: 1,0




1. Introduction

2. Definition of irony

3. Children’s understanding of irony
3.1. When children grasp irony
3.2. How children grasp irony

4. Children’s production of irony
4.1. When children produce irony
4.2. How children produce irony

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Introduction

“Tim and Jan are [going] to the park for a picnic. […]. As they unpack their food, it begins to rain. Jan comments, ‘What perfect weather for a picnic’.” (Glenwright & Pexman, “sarcasm and verbal irony” 429). Although Jan’s utterance seems to be positive, in this context he obviously means the opposite of what is said. He uses irony to complain about the bad weather. Conversations like these occur several times a day. Therefore, the competence of grasping irony is important for everyday life and in particular for social discourse (Pexman & Glenwright, “typically developing children” 179). Everyone should be able to understand and practice irony. However, this can be complex. Irony is not always obvious and can be easily mistaken for lies or understood in a literal meaning. Adults sometimes struggle to detect irony and consequently, misunderstandings in adult conversations can occur. When even adults struggle with irony, one can assume that children do not grasp irony at all. As children are an essential part of our lives and social surroundings, it is interesting to explore the development of children learning to understand, interpret and produce irony. Over the past thirty years, experts in the field of psychology elaborated various theories on how and when children learn to grasp and produce irony. Thus, this paper’s first half will examine three current theories of irony comprehension by reviewing literature from the main contributors in the field of child psychology. These theories are the allusional pretense theory, the echoic mention theory and an alternative theory which critically reflects whether one aspect is sufficient for children to comprehend irony. The most important sources of how and when children are grasping irony are from four professors of psychology, namely the representatives of the mentioned theories. The allusional pretense theory is supported by Marlena A. Creusere, who works at the University of Texas at Austin. Then, the echoic mention theory is represented by Dr. Thomas Keenan, who is from the University of Canterbury. At last, Dr. Melanie Glenwright and Penny M. Pexman, employed at the University of Manitoba and University of Calgary, defend an alternative theory which is strongly connected to Brian P. Ackerman’s studies. Then, the second half of this paper will review three current studies on children’s irony production examined by Pexman et al., Recchia et al, and Whalen and Pexman. As all authors are not only professors in the field of psychology and child psychology but also writers of numerous famous publications, they currently rank among the best main contributors in this field. After giving a definition of irony and an extensive overview of its forms, this paper will focus on the mentioned theories which are currently predominant in the field of child psychology and irony.

2. Definition of irony

Primarily, it is important to clarify the definition of irony and its major forms. Even if many people might be superficially familiar with certain types of irony, still not all ironic types are probably clear. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, irony is “the use of words that say the opposite of what [one] really mean[s]” (Oxford Dictionary 687), typically for a humorous effect. In other words, irony is the definition of utterances in which the literal meanings and the intended meanings are not the same. The common “forms of ironic language are [ironic criticism, ironic compliment,] sarcasm, hyperbole, understatement, and rhetorical questions” (Recchia et. al. 256). Since not all authors focus on one form of irony, this chapter provides an extensive overview of all types. An ironic criticism is the case when a positive statement is intended negatively. For example, when someone calls his friend a very smart student, who actually failed an exam, it seems like this person pays his friend a nice compliment. However, the opposite meaning is actually intended. An ironic compliment works vice versa. For instance, when someone calls his friend a poor student, who gained a good grade in class, the literal meaning seems negative, but the intended meaning is actually a good one (Pexman & Glenwright, “typically developing children” 179). Finally, sarcasm is a subset of irony and is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as utterances “that clearly mean the opposite of what they say […] in order to hurt someone's feelings or to criticize something in a humorous way” (Cambridge Dictionary Online). This definition shows that sarcasm is strongly connected to irony’s general definition and the ironic compliment. Both sarcasm and ironic compliments have a positive literal meaning, but the intended meaning is negative. However, sarcasm differs from irony. Whereas irony is mainly used for humorous purposes, sarcasm can be also used to slight someone. A further form of irony is the hyperbole. A hyperbole is an exaggeration. The literal meaning of an utterance is exaggerated. Take the case of someone who is hungry and says that he could eat the greatest burger in the world. On the contrary, there is the understatement which is the exact opposite of the hyperbole. Thus, someone who is very angry would say that he is just a little bit angry at that moment. At last, not only statements can be ironic but also questions. Rhetorical questions are questions which do not expect a specific answer. The question “Why do terrible things always happen to me?” could be a rhetorical one (Recchia et al. 256). At first this question seems to expect an answer but in fact, it is just a statement covered by a question.

3. Children’s understanding of irony

3.1. When children grasp irony

Even though the experts in the field of psychology published their articles within a period of thirty years, they all still agree with the argument that children grasp irony at around the age of six years. However, there are still minor discrepancies between the allusional pretense theory, the echoic mention theory and the alternative theory. Ackerman’s investigations were one of the first ones in the field of child psychology in combination with irony. He began investigating on children’s understanding of irony in the 1980’s. He argued that children are certainly able to detect irony at the age of six and seven years (Ackerman 487). However, this understanding is limited. Children “are differentially effective in accomplishing [d]etection and [i]nference” (Ackerman 504). They do notice the incongruity between the literal and intended meaning of an ironic utterance but experience problems regarding the inference of this utterance. Nevertheless, Ackerman states that the comprehension of inference increases over time (504). Approximately thirty years later, Pexman and Glenwright, authors of the latest publications in this field, agree with Ackerman’s argument that children understand irony at the age of six years (Pexman & Glenwright, “typically developing children” 179). Moreover, they are also in complete agreement with Ackerman’s statement that children of six years age can only detect irony without any inference. According to Glenwright and Pexman, “children can determine […] irony by six years of age [,] but [they] do not distinguish the pragmatic purposes of [irony] until later in middle childhood” (“sarcasm and verbal irony” 429). In other words, children’s irony comprehension is not completely available at the age of six but increases from the age of six gradually.

As already mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, there are minor differences between the three theories. In respect of Keenan and Quigley’s echoic mention theory, these differences are more clear. Whereas Ackerman, Pexman and Glenwright argue that children’s understanding of irony begins at the age of six years and then increases over the next few years, Keenan and Quigley are more precise. Though Keenan and Quigley do agree with Ackerman’s, Glenwright’s and Pexman’s argument that children grasp irony from the age of six years to a limited extent, they give more detailed information about children’s further development. Children are “able to comprehend a sarcastic speaker’s meaning”, but they are not able “to demonstrate an awareness that the speaker intended to communicate that meaning to the listener” (Keenan & Quigley 93) until the age of eight years. These two authors highlight children’s progress at certain ages. Furthermore, Keenan and Quigley developed children’s performance at a later age, namely at the age of ten years. Their study revealed that ten-year-olds’ comprehension of irony is significantly more advanced than six and eight-year-olds’ comprehension of irony (Keenan & Quigley 90).

Regarding the allusional pretense theory, it becomes obvious that Creusere’s investigations slightly differ from the theories of Ackerman, Pexman and Glenwright, Keenan and Quigley as well. She observed “that recognition […] of irony increases over age, especially between the years of [five] and [eight]” (Creusere 32). She assumes that some children are able to recognize irony at the age of five years – one year earlier than all the other main contributors suggest. However, the focus of Creusere’s study is on eight-year-olds as she believes that every typically developing child at the age of eight years is old enough to grasp irony (34). In brief, Creusere’s suggestion of when a child recognizes irony corresponds relatively to Ackerman, Pexman and Glenwright, Keenan and Quigley.

3.2. How children grasp irony

In contrast to the previous chapter, the three theories of this paper clearly differ from each other regarding the aspect of how children understand irony. Each author has a certain explanation of how children grasp ironic utterances. Keenan and Quigley’s study of the echoic mention theory shows “that irony and sarcasm are most easily comprehended by a [child] when the speaker explicitly ‘echoes’ a previous utterance or some shared norm” (83). In other words, a child reconstructs a connection between a previous utterance of the speaker, his or her typical thoughts or a social norm with the attitude of the speaker’s current ironic utterance and its literal meaning. For example, an ironic speaker could repeat a previous statement of someone. He could say to a friend who said that he will be there on schedule that he is indeed right on time, even though this friend comes late to the meeting. As well as the ironic speaker can repeat his friend’s previous utterance for the purpose of irony, he can also refer to a social norm, namely the implicit norm that punctuality is obligatory in social behavior (Keenan & Quigley 84). The repetition by the ironic speaker reminds the listener of his own previous statement and then the irony is revealed through this echoing. Therefore, Keenan and Quigley state that the “echoic mention theory is a useful theory for describing children’s developing comprehension of [irony]” (83) as children connect irony to previous utterances of an ironic speaker.

According to the allusional pretense theory, irony comprehension depends on two features. On the on hand, there is the “allusion to behavioral expectations, prior thoughts utterances, social conventions, and so forth” (Creusere 29). Though allusion seems to be identical with echoing, there is a significant difference. Creusere explains that allusion “differs from echoing in the sense that the latter [directly] refers to relevant […], whereas the former can make reference either directly or indirectly” (33). On the other hand, there is the “pragmatic insincerity” (Creusere 29). Conversations must adhere to certain maxims to work properly. For instance, one maxim is sincerity. Then, people usually conduct a conversation by giving the conversation partner additional and in particular true information. When a speaker uses ironic remarks, he violates the conversation maxim of sincerity. Consequently, neither the additional information nor the true information is available for the conversation partner (Creusere 34). To sum up, children understand irony due to the combination of the allusion and the violation of pragmatic maxims in an ironic utterance.

Ackerman, Pexman and Glenwright reject both the echoic mention theory and the allusional pretense theory since they explain children’s ability to recognize irony depending “on their neural maturation, mentalizing skills, and social learning” (Pexman & Glenwright, “typically developing children” 193). At this point, it must be mentioned that Pexman and Glenwright’s current study is a republication of Ackerman’s study in 1983. Pexman and Glenwright frequently refer to Ackerman’s investigations in their studies. Therefore, all three professors of psychology are the representatives of the alternative theory. Ackerman’s two key features are “[d]etection and [i]nference [which] are component processes of irony comprehension for children” (503). To grasp irony, a child must first detect the discrepancy between the literal and the intended meaning of an ironic speaker’s remarks. The next step is to make inferences to the attitude of the ironic speaker. When both steps are fulfilled, a child recognizes the ironic utterance. In addition to that, Ackerman suggests that a stressed intonation in ironic speech acts may help children in terms of detection and inference. Equally, Pexman and Glenwright assert that children must “recognize that the speaker’s statement does not reflect the speaker’s belief” (“typically developing children” 180). Nevertheless, Pexman and Glenwright add two more criteria for understanding ironic speech acts, namely the social learning and the neural development of children (“typically developing children” 182). These two additional factors are fulfilled when a child grasps irony. In summary, all main contributors have disparate views on how children recognize irony, and until today, it is not clear whose theory is the right one.


Excerpt out of 11 pages


Children’s Development of Grasping and Producing Irony
A Literature Review on The Current State of Child Psychology
University of Tubingen
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child, review, psychology, producing, literature, irony, grasping, development, current, children’s, state
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Anonymous, 2017, Children’s Development of Grasping and Producing Irony, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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