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It’s Not What You Say, But How You Say It, That Matters

Giving the right emphasis can help you be understood, as shown in new research.

Key points

  • Irony can contribute to humor, but it also has its risks of inadvertently offending people.
  • New research on the emphasis of specific words within sentences provides insights on how irony is perceived.
  • Rather than eliminate irony from your communication, knowing how to use it can enhance your relationships.

You undoubtedly have had experiences in which you’ve inadvertently offended someone, not by what you said necessarily, but by how you said it. Perhaps a restaurant server has been unusually kind and efficient at a casual lunch with a friend. “Thank you so much for your excellent service today,” you say. Rather than producing a smile, instead, it is received with a surly, “Glad you enjoyed it.” What could have been wrong with your compliment to lead to this unwelcome outcome?

When you ask your friend, who overheard the whole exchange, she points out that something about the comment sounded sarcastic. It’s not what you said, but how you said it.

Prosody in Speech

This little incident provides an illustration of how easy it is not to say the wrong thing but to say the right thing the wrong way. According to Max Planck Institute’s (Frankfort am Main) Pauline Larrouy-Maestri and colleagues (2023), “prosody,” or the stress you provide on your words, is a major but perhaps unrecognized force in communication. Prosody is one component of “paralinguistic” communication, or the elements of language not represented in words. As defined by the authors, “Prosodic stress is thus a useful communicative tool that modulates the meaning of a sentence and influences speech processing” (p. 2).

As Larrouy-Maestri et al. point out, prosody can refer to the emphasis within a word of a sentence, as well as the distinctness with which a word is spoken, its length, and even the gestures that accompany it. Indeed, when you think about the many ways there are to communicate via prosody, it can seem overwhelming. All of these channels of conveying meaning may seem impossible to navigate without creating some unfortunate if not insurmountable obstacle to good relationships.

Fortunately, the research conducted by the German authors helps to provide a roadmap to proper use of prosody by showing what leads a spoken sentence to sound ironic.

Irony and Prosody

In irony, as the authors note, there is a “discrepancy between what is (literally) said and the meaning that is likely intended by the speaker”…which “primes a full-blown inversion of the literal semantic meaning of the words that are used” (p. 3). Since the words are the same but the meanings are completely opposite, the only channel that would explain irony’s effects is the paralinguistic route of prosody.

To begin with, the authors created a stimulus bank of 392 separate recordings, ironic and nonironic, spoken by 14 speakers. Then, they asked 53 participants to rate the levels of irony that they actually perceived in these utterances. Each sentence was contextualized so that participants could gain the type of information that natural speakers receive in real-life settings.

The following shows you one contrasting example:

  • Ironic: Jan has bought a rather rusty car from an acquaintance for a small amount of money. The first time he picks up his friend Thomas with this car, Thomas says, "What a fancy car." The irony is in the word "fancy," because it clearly was not.
  • Nonironic: Jan has bought himself a great new car. The first time he picks up his friend Thomas with this car, Thomas says, "What a fancy car." The car was, indeed, great (i.e., fancy).

After contrasting the many potential contributors to ratings of irony, the authors found that prosody indeed mattered. Sentences in which the speaker stressed the words toward the end had higher irony ratings than those in which stress was placed on the sentence's beginning. Try saying the sentences above out loud, giving that contrasting emphasis to the “what” versus the “fancy" to see how this worked. Go back to the comment to the restaurant server, and you'll see that by starting out by stressing "Thank," the server would have had no reason to question the potentially ironic word "excellent."

Using Irony for the Right Reasons

Irony in language, despite the risks associated with it, can help brighten your life. Any lover of Shakespeare, or good comedy for that matter, will argue that irony provides the spice to communication. Expanding on this idea, the authors provide the following important distinctions:

  • Bad irony: "blame by praise” or “sarcastic criticism” in which you offer a comment such as “You’re a real genius" when something's gone wrong. You are using praise words in a critical manner. Stay away from this.
  • Good or kind irony: “praise by blame,” with such expressions as “You’re a real donkey” to someone who has just performed successfully at an endeavor, and who knows they were successful (so the comment doesn't hurt). This is OK to use as long as the listener and you have a good relationship.
  • Laugh-out-loud irony: adding "LOL" to a joke that falls flat or an unintentionally unkind comment to turn bad into good or kind irony. However, it may not completely neutralize an ironic insult.

To sum up, being aware of the tone of your voice as well as the specific emphasis you give to certain words is an important but unrecognized contributor to good relationships. Finding the right balance can ensure that your language conveys your intended meanings, smoothing the way for greater fulfillment through your communication.


Larrouy-Maestri, P., Kegel, V., Schlotz, W., van Rijn, P., Menninghaus, W., & Poeppel, D. (2023). Ironic twists of sentence meaning can be signaled by forward move of prosodic stress. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. DOI: 10.1037/xge0001377

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