E.N. Kislovskaya,

A.N. Starikov

The Irony Principle

The paper focuses on the Irony Principle as one of the basic maxims underlying interpersonal communication. As is well-known, the Cooperation Principle (CP) and the Politeness Principle (PP) have received a detailed and systemic description in the famous papers of G. Grice (G. Grice, 1975) and G. Leech (G. Leech, 1983) accordingly whereas the Irony Principle has remained in-described as far as its inner semantic and structural organization are concerned.

However such a study is quite urgent since ironic utterances, pragmatically loaded as they are, play a very important role in interpersonal communication revealing the fact that intelligent speech is not only a sophisticated intellectual game but also sort of a hedge concealing certain attitudinal, emotional and psychic states of the speaker / writer. From this point of view irony, in all its functional varieties such as humor, wit, satire, sarcasm, is an essential feature of verbal behavior.

Because the purpose of this research is the description of the structural organization of the ironic principle, we are not dwelling on the intricate differences between the outlined functional varieties of ironic utterances even though it is of interest and, certainly, deserves attention.

It should be noticed here that the necessity of devising the Irony Principle was stressed by G. Leech who made a number of important observations while comparing it with the Principle of Politeness (G. Leech, 1983).

According to G. Leech the Irony Principle (IP) may be stated in a general form as follows:

‘If you must cause of fence, at least do so in a way which doesn’t overtly conflict with the PP, but allows the hearer (H) to arrive at the offensive point of your remark indirectly, by way of implicature: irony typically takes the form of being too obviously polite for the occasion. This can happen if speaker (S) overvalues the PP by blatantly breaking a maxim of the CP in order to uphold the PP (G. Leech, 1983, p. 82).

For example, there is an obvious breach of the Quality Maxim:

A: Geoff has just borrowed your car!

B: Well, I like that!

The implicature derived from the Irony Principle works roughly as follows in this case:

‘What B says is polite to Geoff and is clearly not true. Therefore what B really means, is, impolite to Geoff and true! – We have to admit that this is the most common pragmatic essence of Irony. Thus, it can be put in Grice’s own terms as follows. In being polite one is often faced with a clash between the Cooperation Principle and the Politeness Principle so that one has to choose how far to ‘trade off’ one against the other, but in being ironic, one exploits the PP in order to uphold, at a remotest level, the CP. A person who is being ironic appears to be deceiving or misleading the hearer (h), but in fact is indulging in an ‘honest’ form of apparent deception, at the expense of politeness (G. Leech, 1983, p. 83).

As has been mentioned above, the IP coexists with the CP and the PP in the Interpersonal Rhetoric. This principle, however, is parasitic on the other two, in the following sense. The CP and the PP can be seen to be functional by direct reference to their role in promoting effective interpersonal communication, but the IP’s function can only by explained in terms of other principles. The IP is a ‘second-order’ principle which enables a speaker to be impolite while seeming to be polite; it does so by superficially breaking the CP, but ultimately upholding it (G. Leech, 1983; p. 102).

Of interest in the author’s remark that Irony varies in force from the comic irony of M. Twain to the more offensive Irony of sarcastic commands such as ‘Do help yourself’, said to someone who is too obviously helping himself already. Further on, the author admits that the IP may have a positive function in permitting aggression to manifest itself in a less dangerous verbal form than by direct criticism, insults, threats, etc. Whereas an insult can easily lead to a counter-insult, and hence to conflict, an ironic remark is less easy to answer in kind. It combines the art of attack with an apparent innocence which is a form of self-defense. The function of Irony may thus be tentatively explained as follows: if the PP breaks down it is liable to break down on both sides - direct accusations lead to counter-accusations, threat to counter-threat, and so on. But because Irony pays lip-service to the PP, it is less easy to break the PP in one’s response to it. Hence the IP keeps aggression away.

Guided by G. Leech’s reasoning we have all the grounds to believe that the Irony Principle can be devised on the basis of the CP and the PP, though the IP is dependent on the other two not in equal measure. Thus, firstly, we stick to the assumption that the PP shouldn’t be formally violated. In this respect, Irony keeps to the accepted rules of interpersonal communication and is safe enough to avoid direct conflict. Though G. Leech has clearly explained relations of the IP, we may take this for granted with reserve that S shouldn’t employ sarcastic utterances, such as ‘Do help yourself, won’t you?’ or ‘Do you always have to flick ash on the floor?’ if there is any room for social distance between S and H, for it has been stated above that such utterances might appear offensive and thus undesirable. Consequently, the PP shares the first part of its Agreement Maxim: ‘Minimize disagreement between self and other’ with the IP, and breeds the following reservations: ‘Mind social distance, show respect to the older’.

As to the relations of the IP and the CP, the whole matter appears to be much more complicated and intricate due to the fact that the IP tends to breach some or other maxim of the CP. In view of this tendency we must assume that it will be logical to depart from the CP in further elaboration on the issue. But prior to considering the IP as such, it is necessary to make some preliminary remarks on the difference between Irony and Humor proper. It is hardly possible to deny that Ironic utterances can take any grammatical and syntactic form, namely, any type of sentence can convey the ironic attitude of the S. The only restriction for the IP, as has been mentioned, lies in the domain of formal politeness. It suggests one the idea that Irony is an extra-linguistic phenomenon rather than a linguistic one and is, respectively, contextually-bound, unlike humor proper, puns and various witticisms. To prove the point, we’ll consider the following example taken from Grossmith George and Weedon ‘The Diary of a Nobody’ (London, Penguin, 1977) in support of the indicated difference:

‘Another ring at the bell; it was Gowing, who (A) said he ‘must apologize for coming so often, and … I said (B): ‘A very extraordinary thing has struck me’. ‘Something funny, as usual’, said Cummings (C). ‘Yes’ I replied (B1) ‘… doesn’t it seem odd that Gowing’s always coming and Cummings always going?’ …After a pause, Cummings said: ‘Yes, - I think, after that, I shall be going, and I’m sorry I fail to see the fun of your jokes’.

The passage is significant in the sense that it abounds in Ironic utterances and there is Ironic pun into the bargain. Indeed, if we took the rhetoric question ‘Doesn’t it seem odd that Gowing’s always coming, and Cummings always going?’ separately, it would be not a bad joke, even talking into account the fact that without the context it loses much. But we cannot in any way affirm that it is ironic, if it is observed in isolation: it is the context that turns a mere pun into an ironic pun, concerning both A and C, one of whom apologised ‘for coming so often’ while the other ‘couldn’t stop’, that is, he was to be going, respectively. As for C1’s reaction to B1’s pun, it would be impossible to suppose that such an utterance could be made out of nothing, i.e. without some preceding events. If we take C1’s sentence in isolation, pretending not to know what caused it, only deliberate politeness and the phrase ‘after that’ will point to the dubious truthfulness of S’s wish, ‘to see the fun of H’s jokes’, which might not necessarily be a case of Irony. When returned to the wider context, the utterance becomes deeply ironical.

It follows from this reasoning that it is not sufficient merely to breach the CP and keep to the PP to be ironical: S has to know for certain that H bears in his mind what is being implied or meant by ‘S’ especially if there has been a considerable gap in time between one’s words, behaviour, deserving a hidden reproach or mockery, and the ironical utterance aimed at that. Thus, apart from the paraphrased Maxim of Agreement, we can add one more maxim constituting the IP, namely the Maxim of Cognition, which has something in common with the CP’s Maxim of Relation.

To make it more explicit we probably have to name the submaxim of the Maxim of Cognition. The first submaxim follows from the short formulation of the Maxim of Cognition given above and might sound like follows: mind the background knowledge of H and be timely in saying something to minimize the danger of being misinterpreted. The second submaxim may follow from the general assumption that every participant in the interpersonal communication possesses quite a different cognitive volume. Thus, it may be worded as follows: ‘To sound relevant and escape wrong interpretation use Irony only in the inner circle, in the intimate audience’. Of course, this submaxim is irrelevant when there are only two participants in discourse.

The next maxim is obvious from dictionary definitions and the most common ironic utterances such as ‘That’s a pretty thing to say!’ or ‘What a lovely party we have!’ (when it is spoiled or boring), etc., where the words ‘pretty’ and ‘lovely’ are used in their opposite sense. Samples of ironic utterances like these suggest the Maxim of Form and Content, which presupposes that form doesn’t correspond to content and may be rendered as: ‘S says something showing clear discrepancy between what is said and what is implied’.

The Maxim of Form and Content falls into several options in keeping with the variability of devices by means of which the discrepancy between form and content can be achieved: the ways of violating the CP (Maxims of Quantity and Quality), apart from using a word in a ‘wrong’ meaning, are hyperbole (overstatement) and litote (understatement). Irony widely exploits these devices in discourse. Take for instance: ‘Your idea of a good party is to invite the universe. And then leave me up to wash after’ (M. Bradbury). The Irony is primarily attained by overstatement ‘to invite the universe’ and then doubled by the presupposition that she is to wash up after ‘the universe’. No less frequent are cases of litotes (understatement): ‘Some of his words were not Sunday school words’ (M. Twain).

As has been stated above the maxim of Form and Content prescribes to provide clear discrepancy between what is said and what is meant. In view of this, it is necessary to note that to make the utterance sound unmistakably ironic S has to lay a logical stress on the word or word-phrase the meaning of which is either overstated or understated or perverse. Needless to say, the utterance performed by S keeping to one of the conditions of the Maxim of Form and Content will sound obviously untruthful. Thus, the Maxim of Form and Content may be realized though one of the three options:

  1. Mean the opposite of what you’re saying
  2. Overstate the meaning
  3. Understate the meaning

But it must be pointed out that the three basic maxims, i.e. the Maxim of Agreement, the Maxim of Cognition, the Maxim of Form and Content are not fully comprehensive and are to be complemented with additional second-order maxims which further will be called ‘auxiliary’. The necessity of auxiliary maxims is conditioned by the more extended and complicated instances of Irony found in literary texts:

‘I have a problem, Dr Kirk’, she says. ‘Howard … says… Hello, Felicity. What’s wrong this time?’ ‘I always have a problem, don’t I?’ says Felicity. ‘That’s because you’re so good at solving them’ (M. Bradbury).

The last sentence, notwithstanding its conciseness, is profoundly ironical, not to say sarcastic. The ironic effect is doubled and compressed in one sentence by means of: first, the allegedly erroneous usage of the word ‘good’ (Maxim of Form and Content); second, the deliberately false, artificial and forced logical deduction implying that she always has a problem because she is so good at solving them, which is, of course, a case of pure demagogy when logic is imperceptibly violated so as to force H to deceive himself. The latter device is widely used both in interpersonal communication and in fiction. Mostly, it occurs in fiction of humorous or satiric character as in the following example:

‘He stood before them with his body swayed, and bent forwards just so far, as to make an angle of 85 degrees and a half upon the plain of the horizon, which sound orators, to whom I address this, know very well, to be the true persuasive angle of incidence … The necessity of this precise angle of 85 degrees and a half to a mathematical exactness, - does it not show us, by the way, - how the arts and sciences mutually befriend each other?’ (L. Stern)

In the quoted passage there are at least two obvious instances of demagogy: first, reference to some sound orators who allegendy know very well about the angle of 85,5 degrees; second, the wittingly superficial conclusion about the mutual interaction sciences. Resting upon the fact that instances of ironic attitude based on demagogy exist both in dialogue and monologue speech, we suppose that it is relevant to introduce the auxiliary Maxim of Demagogy. It is assumed that this maxim has numerous submaxims and options and needs further investigation, which is not the immediate purpose of this paper.

Besides, two more auxiliary maxims might be added to those observed above: the Maxim of Manner bearing the same name as that of the CP, but having a different nature, namely, the opposite - be ambiguous, and the Maxim of Overpoliteness, which differs, from the Maxim of Agreement in the sense that is pursues the purpose of additional ironic effect, not the purpose of restriction as in: ‘It will afford me the greatest pleasure to have a chance to meet you again’ (Ch. Dickens).

The Maxim of Overpoliteness might be formulated like this: ‘Use as many polite constructions as possible so that to extend the overused cliches of politeness by means of paraphrase.

Summing up the above said it is possible to enumerate the maxims and submaxims of the Irony Principle in the following order:

The Irony Principle

Basic Maxims

The Maxim of Agreement

a)minimize disagreement between self and other

b) mind social distance, show respect to H

The Maxim of Cognition

  1. mind the background knowledge of H, be timely in saying what you intended to say to minimize the danger of being misinterpreted
  2. use irony in an inner circle or with an intimate audience

The Maxim of Form and Content

  1. mean the opposite of what you’re saying
  2. overstate the meaning
  3. understate the meaning

Note: The Maxim of Form and Content has options unlike other Maxims.

Auxiliary Maxims.

The Maxim of Demagogy

use false logic

The Maxim of Manner

be ambiguous

The Maxim of Overpoliteness

use euphemisms

Thus, it can be stated that the IP comprises three basic and three auxiliary maxims. The first two (the Maxim of Agreement and the Maxim of Cognition) fall into two submaxims each, whereas The Maxim of Form and Content falls into options through one of which it can be realized.


Grice G.F. Logic and Conversation // Cole F, and Morgan I.Z. (Ed’s) Syntax and Semantics. – Vol. 1. Speech Acts. – New York; Academic Press, 1975, pp. 41-58.

Leech G. Principles of Pragmatics, - London and New York; Longman, 1983. – 241 p.