Jun 182014

Every teacher knows that marking students’ papers can be a tedious job. If only there were a computer that could do it for us. Except of course, there are computers that do now – but how well?

There’s a lovely article here that explains why we shouldn’t use them for high stakes exams – and the reason…. sarcasm.

Click the ‘Irony and Sarcasm’ button on the right to see some of my other postings about irony and sarcasm.

 Posted by at 3:45 pm
Oct 182013

Here’s our latest 90 second video English lesson. (As always, the video is also available with a clickable transcript at http://www.simpleenglishvideos.com/language/)

This is one of many curious British and American differences that I’ll be exploring in my webinar for IATEFL this Saturday (19th Oct 2013), along with questions like ‘Are Americans really more direct?’ and ‘What’s the role of sarcasm in American English?’
To join the webinar, follow this link: http://www.iatefl.org/membership-information/iatefl-webinars
It’s suitable for English teachers or anyone with an interest in linguistics and British and American differences. It’s free and open to all so hope some of you can make it.

 Posted by at 3:51 am
Aug 142010

I’ve been arguing that ‘sarcasm’ means different things in BrE and AmE, so is it the same with ‘irony’? I’ll try to be systematic about this because there are different kinds of irony.

1. The most common sort seems to be of the verbal kind. An example would be a sarcastic remark where you say the opposite of what you mean, like ‘Yeah right’ when you mean ‘No way’. And we generally all know that you mean ‘no way’, so it’s often funny. These kinds of remarks seem pretty common on both sides of the pond to me, and we could use the word ‘ironic’ in both varieties to describe them.
2. Then there’s fictional or dramatic irony, so when something is strikingly obvious to the reader or viewer but the characters or actors can’t see it. It’s pretty specific to literature and there might be a BrE /AmE difference, but if there is, I haven’t noticed it.

3. And then there’s a situational irony, where instead of things happening as expected, we get the opposite result. This irony is often of the cosmic kind, where the world seems to be conspiring against us. So we might set out with the best of intentions doing what seems sensible to achieve a goal, but it later turns out that we did everything wrong and we wind up achieving the opposite effect. (I keep thinking of Del Boy in ‘Only fools of horses’ setting out to help Rodney mend his marriage and only making matters worse.) Again, I think we use ‘ironic’ in the same way for this in BrE and AmE.

‘But what about Alanis Morissette?’, you ask. ‘Did she misunderstand the word when she wrote her song ‘Ironic’?’

Yes, I think she misunderstood meaning No. 3.  The events she describes wouldn’t normally be described as ironic in AmE. (You’d agree, wouldn’t you, American readers?) As the Irish comedian Ed Byrne puts it:

“The only ironic thing about that song is it’s called ‘Ironic’ and it’s written by a woman who doesn’t know what irony is. That’s quite ironic.”

Here’s Ed in action. (Thanks very much for the link, Shaun!)

So I reckon:

     ‘sarcasm’ – different meanings in the UK and US
  ‘irony’ – same meanings 

Mind you, I read something that gave me pause for thought at this site ( I’m guessing it’s AmE.)

The word “irony” is among the most commonly misused (and misunderstood) words in the English language. Most people think that irony means a juxtaposition of opposites, as in:

• It was ironic that the fire station burned down.

While this sentence has some element of irony in it, it is not really ironic, and does not portray the full and correct meaning of the word irony. True irony involves some form of deceit, duplicity, or hypocrisy, be it intentional or accidental... …

The most common form of irony is when the spoken words do not convey the underlying meaning. For example, it would be ironical for you to say:

• He is as smart as a soap dish

Well, this was news to me because I found that fire station example pretty ironic and the soap dish example very un-ironic. So maybe it’s another individual’s misguided take on things, or perhaps I’m missing something here.

Any thoughts?

Here’s the rest of this series: part one, part two, part three

 Posted by at 5:25 am
Jul 302010

First a question:

Remember Bob Geldof, Boomtown Rats singer and oh so earnest political activist of Live Aid fame?  He’s sometimes referred to in the UK press as ‘Saint Bob’. Would you say British newspapers are being sarcastic when they do that?

OK, done that? Remember your answer and read on.

So where were we?

Well, in part one I said that in BrE, we describe remarks as ‘sarcastic’ when we’re saying the opposite of what we mean. Meanwhile in AmE, ‘sarcastic’ seems to cover a wider range of remarks, such as those you’d find here or here. They mostly wouldn’t qualify as sarcastic in the BrE sense, but I think AmE readers seemed to agree that they would in AmE. However, reading comments from fellow Brits, I’m still wondering if I’m defining BrE sarcasm too narrowly.

So now I need to tell you that someone very knowledgeable has come to the exact opposite conclusions to mine.  Ha! You can read more about it over at Lynneguist’s excellent ‘Separated by a common language’ blog. Solo was one of Lynne’s students, and she wrote:

Over the course of my research into the differences between American and British (especially English) sarcasm …, it became clear to me that the difference isn’t so much in the way we use it, as in the way we define it. While the AmE definition emphasi{s/z}es negativity and saying the opposite of what is meant, Brits seem to have a far broader definition, which includes humorous exchange, clever wordplay and affectionate insults or criticisms of others (even those we don’t know, which I think may be the most fundamental cultural difference).

Co-op First Aid Dressing Launch - Page 1 by damo1977.

Solo gives an interesting example:

…there are things we British will do in conversation which we would call sarcastic, but which Americans would not. For example, in the irreverent media, Sir Bob Geldof, of Live Aid fame, is frequently referred to as ‘Saint Bob’. Now this is obviously not entirely sincere, but it isn’t fully contemptuous either; we are mocking his interminable altruism and campaigning, but we also respect all his charity work and dedicated parenting. So although we don’t completely mean that he is a saint, we also don’t mean that he isn’t and I think most Brits would refer to that as sarcasm, but I’m also fairly sure our American counterparts would not. Feel free to correct this flagrant generali{s/z}ation ☺

So Brits and Americans (and everyone else) how did you answer that question earlier?

I’m sure Solo’s right that ‘sarcastic’ means different things in BrE and AmE. But I wonder if we’ve both been going up the wrong garden path here. We’ve both tried to apply that ‘saying-the-opposite-of-what’s-meant’ definition to one variety or the other. But it’s very limiting and probably only works in part in both varieties. And we’ve both presumed that one variety encompasses a broader set of meanings for sarcasm than the other. But a more helpful way to think about it might be something like this:



Click here to read part one of this series and here for part two.

 Posted by at 6:36 am
Jul 292010

A wink & a nod by kthypryn.

An overt nod and a wink seems to be used a good deal to signal sarcasm in the US. I ran searches on my personal emails and I can tell you that only my ‘merican correspondents ever say ‘just kidding’.

And (interestingly for this Brit) this extends to ‘mericans who are really close to me – folks who I feel sure must know that I know when they’re making fun. They don’t flinch when I mock or tease them and they give as good as they get. But when we’re trading friendly, intimate insults, they add a ’just kidding’. So what different politeness rules are operating here?


Big, big thanks to the perceptive commenters who highlighted this when I was trying to tease out the differences between the US and UK meanings of sarcasm in part one of this series.

 Posted by at 9:31 am