I'm prompted to ask this question because I was troubled by some answers to questions about punctuation in rhetorical questions. The solution also calls into question the notion that 'said' is the only acceptable dialogue tag.

Maria folded her arms and raised a single eyebrow before turning away. "If I'd known you were coming I'd have baked a cake," she muttered, stepping aside to allow the visitor to pass.

Does this read as sarcastic?

What informs you the statement is sarcastic?

  • 3
    Not worth posting as an answer, but the folded arms / single eyebrow / muttering did it for me. Nicely done. Was the headline question... um... what's the word? – ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere Dec 25 '19 at 12:00
  • The raised eyebrow is a good cue, sounded sarcastic to me! – user24213 Jan 5 '20 at 16:02

English sarcasm is primarily conveyed through tone

A great deal of vocal communication is done through tone and body language, rather than the words themselves. These features are generally lost in writing.

"Bob, I thought I heard some crying in the well."

Now, when Bob said "Right", did he mean "I don't believe you", "correct", or "thank you for reminding me?" I could communicate any and all of those sentiments with the word "right", using different intonations. But when I just write the word "right", all of that is lost.

Tone is used as a strong indicator of sarcasm. Without our ability to rely on it as an indicator, our ability to differentiate sarcasm is greatly diminished.

That said, there are ways to communicate tone in writing. Punctuation marks are primative tonal indicators, and adjectives and adverbs (such as drawled, or even "said sarcastically") can help pinpoint a speaker's tone. Descriptions of body language can also be used to get across what a character means.

In casual interpersonal communications, where adjectives and descriptions of body language are out of place, emojis have largely filled the gap and provide emotional context to otherwise indecipherable statements.

I have heard (although I cannot confirm), that native speakers of tonal languages (which use tone to distinguish different words and therefore cannot use it for sarcasm without changing the words themselves) are much better at recognizing written sarcasm than English speakers. The flip side is that they themselves are less likely to intone their sarcasm even when speaking English, and they are more likely to get their sarcasm misinterpreted by their English audiences than other speakers would.


One thing that I have found that helps me is, anytime I have dialogue, I say it out loud without any additional words like "he said" and "she said" to see if the dialogue alone feels real. If the dialogue feels real and not silly when I say it out loud, then I can enhance the meaning and experience of the dialogue with things like "she muttered" and "folded arms".

  • That's hardly a guarantee. Most likely, if you read it out loud, you'll add your own inflection and possibly even expression or gestures. Maybe ask someone else to read the sentence for you. (That said, I like reading out my own dialogues, so I know what you mean by "does it feel real", but it's not a good way to figure out if sarcasm is conveyed accurately.) – Llewellyn Dec 28 '19 at 17:42

If Maria systematically bakes cakes for him then it does not sound like sarcasm. If she never does or cannot even imagine baking one then it does.


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