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Most of us who have spent more than a few days reading things and interacting with people on the internet know how difficult it is to convey sarcasm. There is no tone there is only the words on our screens. Surely there is a way to express oneself in text in such a way that sarcasm is understood.

Here on Stack Exchange we have the use of markdown. We could put chunks of text in italics to distinguish it, but that seems less than ideal and markdown isn't available everywhere.

I've also used the <sarcasm></sarcasm> codeblock reference. But that is clunky and explicit. If you are going to be that up front you can also just say "This is sarcasm."

Then there is the simple fact that I have read plenty of sarcasm. Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams works are dripping with it. But I've never really determined why when they do it it is clear, but most others, myself included, seem to struggle with it. Is there a difference between sarcastic literature and people communicating on the internet?

What I am looking for are specific techniques for delivering sarcasm, in print, that are reasonably detectable by the average reader, as such.

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    +1, but I wonder if the question might not be too broad - if there's a significant difference between delivering sarcasm in literature, and delivering sarcasm in a short internet comment. Let's see, maybe that's something answers will address. (Worst case scenario - you might have to split this into two good questions.) – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Mar 23 at 21:25
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    Nowadays, <sarcasm></sarcasm> is usually contracted to just /s. – ahiijny Mar 24 at 4:29
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In novels you can parse sarcasm because you know the characters, specifically you know what they know and how they think, so you know the difference between a serious suggestion and a flip suggestion.

I've written a sarcastic retort by a character in one of my stories, and my first reader got it immediately; because the character was making a suggestion completely out of her personality. So it had to be sarcasm, and that's how it was read and it was found funny to get a laugh (even though the character was frustrated with the stubbornness of another character).

You cannot duplicate that in an internet post except with friends that get your personality. Absent that relationship, then in that venue, you need to make your sarcastic responses a bit over the top, so they seem outlandish enough to make the reader think twice about how serious you are being.

Either that, or include a rolling-eyes emoji, if possible.

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    In fiction, if you're describing a character conveying sarcasm, you can have them roll their eyes to make it really obvious. – ahiijny Mar 24 at 4:36
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Sarcasm is tricky. You correctly state that the written word is a poor medium for sarcasm (and surely you can't put your retorts betwen tags, unless if you hope to become a meme on some obscure internet imageboard).

Yet I'd argue that context can help you make clear sarcastic remarks, even when you can't portray vocal inflections (let's ignore that in a novel you can still describe those, but that's a roundabout).

The Dictionary.com entry on irony states that:

In sarcasm, ridicule or mockery is used harshly, often crudely and contemptuously, for destructive purposes ...

So, first of all, the intent of sarcasm is to make destructive irony. If we take this from granted, we have a pretty narrow scope of what the place of sarcasm is. What meaning should be conveyed.

Let's say you are arguing with a person on the internet. After an hour long heated debate, you decide to end your sentence with a:

"Wow, you must really be a genius in your field."

It's clearly a snappy remark, and sarcasm at its base level. Most of the readers will get the derogatory intent of your words. The literal meaning of the sentence would seem to point to a compliment, but this interpretation would clash against the whole discussion (hence, it would clash with the context).

Also, as Amadeus noted, absurdity can be used as a clue. In my example the sentence is a little over the top (most people don't use "wow" seriously in a sentence). And again, the literal meaning of the sentence would be absurd given the context of the heated discussion. As humans, we know well that if two people are arguing they are more likely to insult each other rather than the opposite, so ...

I'd argue that in literature is easier, since the narrator has the tools to make the contrast even more sharp. The PoV character might struggle with some task; the author can indulge in how difficult it is paragraph after paragraph. Once you set the context, when someone suggests something that is clearly absurd about what has been stated, it's clearly sarcastic.

Maybe it's the classic young farmer learning to wield a sword. When the rival nobleman comes in and says "Did you manage to stick them with the pointy end?" the sarcastic intent will be clear. Most readers will be able to pick that up.

So, TLDR, the elements that can help you are:

  • Context
  • Derogatory intent
  • Absurdity of the literal meaning
  • Being a little over-the-top

I don't really like the last option, but the again, there it is.


I don't want this to become a mile-long answer, but I'll add some final statements here. In my opinion, the aim of sarcasm is not necessarily to be understood.

If you're being rude to me and I want you to know that I don't appreciate that, I may state it out loud. I may even insult you to show my dissatisfaction. But if I want to mock you, I can simply say:

"Well thanks dearly for your kindness."

Of course there's a chance that you won't pick up the sarcasm, but that's part of the game. I have succeeded in the intent of mocking you. This kind of sarcasm can go completely undetected. I do tend to use this form of sarcasm/irony, and deliver my jokes in a completely flat tone: the vocal inflections are cues, but they are not necessary to sarcasm.

The same actually happens in internet. If you are writing a sarcastic piece and someone takes it seriously, the joke's is usually on them (and I stop here before I go rant about memes).

Of course this doesn't apply well to novels and literature; while there are works that employ a similar use of irony (e.g. A Modest Proposal, to cite a satyrical classic) a sarcastic comment in a novel will work if most of the audience will be able to catch it up.

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    Within the past week, I had to seriously explain to a coworker that A Modest Proposal was, in fact, thinly veiled socio-political commentary, and NOT a literal promotion of cannibalism. – Jedediah Mar 28 at 19:23
  • @Jedediah Well that must have been fun. – Liquid - Reinstate Monica Mar 28 at 20:33

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