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J Child Lang. 2010 Mar;37(2):429-51. doi: 10.1017/S0305000909009520. Epub 2009 Jun 15.

Development of children's ability to distinguish sarcasm and verbal irony.

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University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, CANADA, R3T 2N2.


Adults distinguish between ironic remarks directed at targets (sarcasm) and ironic remarks not directed at specific targets. We investigated the development of children's appreciation for this distinction by presenting these speech acts to 71 five- to six-year-olds and 71 nine- to ten-year-olds. Five- to six-year-olds were beginning to understand the non-literal meanings of sarcastic speakers and ironic speakers but did not distinguish ironic and sarcastic speakers' intentions. Nine- to ten-year-olds were more accurate at understanding sarcastic and ironic speakers and they distinguished these speakers' intentions, rating sarcastic criticisms as more 'mean' than ironic criticisms. These results show that children can determine the non-literal meanings of sarcasm and irony by six years of age but do not distinguish the pragmatic purposes of these speech acts until later in middle childhood.

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