Hancock, J.T., Purdy, K., & Dunham, P.J. (2000). Children’s comprehension of critical and complimentary forms of verbal irony. Journal of Cognition and Development, 1, 227-248.


The existing research on children’s comprehension of verbal irony has focused exclusively on children’s understanding of ironic criticisms. Two experiments examined 5- and 6-year-old children’s ability to detect the nonliteral nature and intended meaning of both ironic criticism and ironic praise as depicted in short, videotaped stories. Considered together, the results from these experiments permit several conclusions: First, the data confirm earlier research suggesting that children’s detection of nonliteral utterances and their interpretation of the speaker’s pragmatic intent are separable components of early irony comprehension. Second, children’s ability to detect ironic statements is asymmetrical across critical and complimentary forms of irony. Finally, although children more readily detect ironic criticisms, explicit echoic cues play an important role in facilitating uniquely their detection of ironic compliments. We discuss these results in the context of social pragmatic theories of early communicative development (e.g., Bruner, 1983; Tomasello, 1992, 1995) and with reference to a recent allusional-pretense model of irony comprehension proposed for mature speakers (Kumon-Nakamura, Glucksberg, & Brown, 1995).