Sarcasm is sooo great! But what is it?

Oh, sarcasm, sarcasm. The thing that puzzles us so much. It takes some knowledge of the person to know if he is being sarcastic or not. Regardless of how sarcastic we were ourselves. But is there any science behind it? As it turns out, there is, and I wrote my MA thesis about it in Spanish. But if you don't have time to read it, just read this post instead. 😅

Sarcasm vs irony

This is the question I have heard a plethora of times. What is sarcasm? What is irony? Are they any different? Well, to start, sarcasm is always a linguistic phenomenon. What you say can be sarcastic, but what you do cannot. On the other hand, a situation or an event might be ironic. If you buy a malfunctioning fire alarm that sets your home on fire because of a short circuit, we are talking about irony. The alarm that was supposed to protect you from fire, but it was the one causing it. Now, if you tell your friend about it and he replies, "What a great purchase the fire alarm was", he is being sarcastic.

What does it require to be sarcastic?

Sarcasm requires what we call pragmatic insincerity. This means that one of the felicity conditions is being violated. So if I say that I am the president of Finland, I am being pragmatically insincere because I am stating a fact that doesn't hold. In addition, sarcasm requires a victim. Of course, if I lie to somebody, I am being pragmatically insincere and my lie has a victim. 🤥 So there's more to sarcasm than just that. 😮

What is needed is that the intended message is different or opposite to the semantic meaning of the words. "What a nice day!", if used sarcastically does just that, because the person saying it means the exact opposite. There aren't really any further requirements for sarcasm. Sometimes people will point it out by a particular tone in their voice or by gestures, but that's not needed. Also it's typical that sarcasm is something negative masked as something positive and that it is exaggerated. But then again, these aren't strict requirements either. ☺️

Different kinds of sarcasm

I studied sarcasm from the point of view of its automatic detection. And from that point of view, there are two main kinds of sarcasm: easy to detect and hard to detect.

Easy to detect sarcasm is something we can deduce by the common knowledge we have. If someone asks you where they can buy breast milk, they are either being sarcastic or stupid. 🤷🏼‍♂️ It's commonly known that breast milk isn't something you would buy. And frankly in the case of easy to detect sarcasm, the alternatives are always the same: either you are talking with a moron or a sarcastic person.

Hard to detect sarcasm requires more contextual knowledge outside of the language. "I love your new hat", can be sarcastic if the hat is awful. There's no other way of knowing whether we are dealing with sarcasm or not than assessing the hat and knowing the taste of the person saying the utterance. Knowing the person is a key part here, because sarcasm requires theory of mind to some extent. 🤔


Whether you are a sarcastic person yourself or have written an entire thesis about it, it's still something that is difficult to get. Sometimes we excel at it, sometimes we fail miserably. But hey, we all are in a same boat here. 😅