Oh great

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For those who think that irony "is almost always indicated by tone of voice", a little quiz:

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Which of these are literal (positive evaluation of something) and which are ironic (negative evaluation of something)?

Answers tomorrow The answers are below. (I've re-opened comments but no more responses will be tallied, so please don't bother giving them to us — the comments are open for discussion of what the exercise means, if anything…)

First, let me point out that this was a poorly-run experiment. I should have set it up so that listeners are exposed to one clip at a time, and don't get to see other people's responses, and have to make a forced choice. I understand that Christoph Draxler has written some neat HTML5 code for running perception experiments, and plans to make it available to others, so at some point in the not-too-distant future we'll be able to do proper perception experiments (leaving aside issues of variation in listening technology, acoustic environment, and listener seriousness…).

For the purposes of this unscientific straw poll, I added up the responses anyhow, assigning half a vote in each direction when people said they couldn't tell about a given stimulus. Some people didn't respond at all with respect to some items, and I left those out.

The table below gives the tally, the percentages, and the truth (which is in each case obvious from the (textual) context).

1 22.5 (59%) 15.5 (41%) ironic
2 6.5 (17%) 31.5 (83%) literal
3 31 (86%) 5 (14%) literal
4 9.5 (25%) 28.5 (75%) ironic
5 23 (61%) 15 (39%) literal
6 29.5 (78%) 8.5 (22%) literal

If we tally up the responses for the four literal instances of "oh great", we get 90 "literal" responses and 60 "ironic" responses, so listeners were 90/150 = 60% correct.

Tallying up the responses for the two ironic instances, we get 32 "literal" responses and 44 "ironic" responses, so listeners were 44/76 = 58% correct.

Overall, listeners were 59% correct.

So the performances are apparently conveying some information about the literal/ironic distinction: but it's far from perfect. And some individual instances (especially #2) are consistently misunderstood — which means that these percentages are likely to be rather unstable, and would probably change in a better experiment with a larger number of examples.

I interpret these results as follows. The performances convey a modest amount of attitudinal (and other) information, which some listeners are using to reason (consciously or unconsciously) about likely utterance contexts and speaker attitudes, and to make a guess about whether the utterance was literal or ironic. Another way to look at the process is that listeners are responding to an ensemble of performance features that they associate to one extent or another with "irony" or "sarcasm" — perhaps even in the specific case of this common phrase. Under either way of looking at it, the performance features in question do not include anything worth calling a "sarcastic/ironic intonation" or "sarcastic/ironic tone of voice", since the same features would play a role in the evaluation of arousal, affect valence, and so on.

Let me note in passing that there's a striking contrast here between the "text" and its performance in the quantity and quality of information conveyed. Despite the indifferent acoustic quality (these clips are taken from telephone conversations), there's no question in these examples about what the words are; but whatever the intonation, tone of voice, etc., are conveying, it's much more diffuse and there's much less agreement about what it is.

These examples were picked in the following way: I searched the LDC's published telephone-conversation corpora for the sequence "oh great"; clicked on a small more-or-less random sample; and took the first six where the "oh great" part was not too much overlapped with other speech or otherwise acoustically unsuitable. This required listening to 8 examples.

Here are the textual contexts for the clips that I chose:

A:  and uh as we were doing it too everybody noticed that there were all these big guys of assorted nationalities to play basketball waiting ar- for us and as we walked out i was limping and i'm like oh great i have purple tights on you know

B: uh one of the um times that we had sort of a family reunion was when uh was this i think it was last last winter we uh we went up to New Hampshire to go skiing
A: oh great
B: and uh a bunch of us got together

B: uh well i i like i said i've done mechanics all my life and i do that with the company so uh i'm a senior engineer for them so i am mechanics and i i just uh i enjoy it i really it's like a diversion for me i i think if i had to do it
A: oh great
B: if i had to do automotive repair or or anything i love to do woodwork and too and it's a diversion because i know i'd really don't have to do this okay so i think i like that because i know i don't have to do this but if if i were forced to do it that may be a different situation

A: so definitely no pets
in fact i just talked to my um husband we're supposed to visit my sister in law next week and she has a cat
and i'm thinking oh great i'm you know i need to be able to breath

B: but you know at at Texoma it's such a big lake and we don't have a boat but we're on the dock and people come in there's a lot of sandy islands out in the middle of Texoma
A: uh-huh
B: and they go out and fish around there and people come in with these ice chests just full of of you know twelve fourteen sixteen eighteen inch long fish
A: oh great
B: it's the darndest thing i've ever seen and i don't know we we're probably going to have to get us a boat one of these days soon and go out and see go out and see what's really out there

B: yeah yeah well what's your major in school
A: it's art
B: art
A: yeah fine art
B: what type of art
A: fine art
B: oh great
B: (( well that's good well can't you uh make your own greeting cards ))


  1. J Lee said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 6:55 pm

    Just by ear, 3, 5, and 6 seem literal. #1 sounds like she's going to start a clause explaining her irony; #2 sounds like the standard intonation of the phrase; #4 just sounds pissed.

    Of course, even though #3 sounds the most authentic because of the tone of surprise that one would expect in an exclamation, anyone could just as easily utilize it ironically.

  2. Evan Harper said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 6:59 pm

    Agree that 3,5,6 sound literal and 1,2,4 sound ironic, but w/o much confidence. Concluded this before reading comments.

  3. Luis said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 7:00 pm

    My wife (born and mostly raised in New England) thought, on the first hearing, that all of the recordings were ironic. When I replayed them, all of them got the comment "well, actually, this one could be ironic". As her final comment, she exclaimed "You can't tell without a context!", which sort of confirms Mark's point.

  4. Mags said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 7:06 pm

    To me 2 & 4 are most likely ironic; 5 could be, depending on the accent of the speaker.

    I'd like to hear some examples of similar length taken from a speaker whose accent and mode of speech I was familiar with.

  5. Kurt said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 7:12 pm

    1. Literal.
    2. Ironic.
    3. Wouldn't load for me.
    4. Ironic.
    5. Literal.
    6. Literal.

  6. Barney said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 7:24 pm

    2. Ironic
    3. Literal
    4. Ironic

    Others not much idea one or the other, and not much confidence in those. Guessed without reading comments.

  7. Russell said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 7:29 pm

    All literal. Why? I figure it would illustrate the point best. =)

    But the ones that most clearly seem to have what I'd consider a "sarcastic" intonation are 2 and 4, FWIW. 6 sounds like it could easily be a dead-pan delivery of a sarcastic comment.

  8. Twitter Trackbacks for ► Oh great: For those who think that irony "is almost always indicated by tone of voice", a little quiz: ... [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 7:43 pm

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  9. YM said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 7:46 pm

    3,5,6 are literal.

    I find it hard to judge 2, because the loud out-breath and the creaky voice at the end sound like exasperation to me. I am not sure if the intonation alone would have that effect.

    1 could go either way depending on context. I can see it leading to a complaint. But standing alone it could be literal.

    4 is ironic for sure.

  10. Joshua Fisher said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 7:48 pm

    My son (9) and I are translating "ironic" as "negative" and "literal" as "positive." Here we go:

    (1) negative
    (2) negative
    (3) positive
    (4) negative*
    (5) positive
    (6) positive

    *One disagreement between my son and myself here. I said "positive" (literal) here, and he said "negative" (ironic).

  11. Aaron Toivo said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

    They all sound literal to me, though any or all could have unmarked irony. Of course you can't always tell irony by tone of voice… but on the other hand, a number of possible vocal inflections one could give the phrase "oh great" would never be mistaken for literal. (The reverse doesn't hold, I don't think: there are no tones of voice that could never be mistaken for irony.)

  12. Robert Coren said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 7:54 pm

    My reactions: 2 & 4, ironic; 3, literal; really can't tell about the others. As others have suggested, context would help. Note that, in the examples that started all this, Dad would have lots of context.

  13. J. Goard said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 7:55 pm

    Another vote for 1,2,4 negative, 3,5,6 literal. A little surprised that the reactions are so consistent.

  14. Joshua Fisher said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 7:57 pm

    Daughter (6) had these results:

    (1) positive
    (2) negative
    (3) positive
    (4) negative
    (5) positive
    (6) positive

  15. Ryan said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 8:03 pm

    I definitely heard all of them as negative.

  16. Bloix said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 8:04 pm

    Literal: 1, 3, 6
    ironic: 2, 4, 5

  17. Dmitri said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 8:07 pm

    My wife Liz and I think 2, 4, and 5 are ironic. For us, #5 seems to be the most clearly and obviously ironic sample in the bunch. (Though we think it could be somebody doing an extremely bad job of pretending to be happy.)

    Liz has a paper coming out in Nous on sarcasm, so she's got some skin in the game. (She says sarcasm is not generally indicated by tone, and that it crosses the semantic/pragmatic boundary in interesting ways.)

  18. Shmuel said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 8:10 pm

    I would contend that taking any snippet of speech completely out of its context will lead to misinterpretation. As given, without having a baseline for these speakers' intonation, there is no way of determining a meaningful answer. This does not mean that the intonation wouldn't be sufficient to make it clear if the context were provided.

  19. Ellen K. said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 8:11 pm

    I think 2, 4, and 5 sound negative (sarcastic). None sound clearly positive (literal). The other 3 I don't have an inclination one way or the other.

    I'm particularly surprised the some people think 5 sounds literal.

  20. William Young said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 8:23 pm

    One and Three sound genuine to me.

    Two sounds off, but might just be tired.
    Five sounds off, but might just be distracted.
    Six sounds off, but might just be melancholy (EG: In response to, "Well, it's not completely broken…")

    Four doesn't sound genuine at all.

  21. Anonymous1345 said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 8:31 pm

    (3) and (6) are positive; the others, negative.

  22. Xmun said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 8:36 pm

    I think all six could be either. It depends . . .

  23. Eric TF Bat said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 8:42 pm

    Obviously, all the ones with American accents are not ironic, since everyone knows that Americans don't understand irony!

    (What's that? Alannis Morissette is Canadian? Damn! Back to the drawing board…)

  24. TC said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 8:50 pm

    1) positive
    2) negative
    3) uncertain, leaning negative
    4) negative
    5) negative
    6) positive

  25. Barbara Partee said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 8:55 pm

    I'm sure any could be either with context and with more familiarity with the given speaker's style; but the reactions for my ears are:
    1, 4, could easily be either
    2 ironic; 5 ironic unless it's some sort of Valley girl (?) (that's probably out of date) style
    3,6 literal

  26. baklava said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 9:00 pm

    All positive but 2!

  27. Mr Fnortner said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 9:51 pm

    #1 sounds ironic to me. The others, I can't say. I don't think Morissette understands irony either.

  28. Chandra said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 10:04 pm

    2 and 4 sound ironic for sure. The rest I'm not certain about. I didn't read comments first.

  29. James R said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 10:14 pm

    I agree with the consensus on 2 & 4 (ironic) and 3 & 6 (literal). As for the others, I'd guess that 1 is ironic, but said with a dead-pan delivery, and that 5 is sincere, but exaggerated, perhaps as a sort of throat-clearing pause.

  30. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 10:43 pm

    I go for 3 and 6 literal, the rest ironic.

  31. Faith said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 11:23 pm

    If I think about my own use of irony, I take pains NOT to use a sarcastic tone. Someone says to me, "There's a flood in the basement and the janitor won't have it cleared up until late this afternoon," and I say in as bright and cheerful a tone as possible, "Outstanding!" (I do this shamelessly for laughs.) Thus, can't really guess on these as I'd be likely to choose the most "sincere" sounding ones as the irony.

  32. swami said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 11:25 pm

    So when your mother-in-law calls and says she'll be coming to stay for two weeks and you say, "Oh, great," to be polite but your actually thinking, "Oh, Christ," would that be literal or ironic?

  33. HP said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 11:27 pm

    Wait a sec — there's a non-ironic now? When did this happen?

  34. Mark F. said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 11:45 pm

    I'm with Mark. Of course you can't always tell irony by tone of voice because sometimes the tone of voice is part of the irony. And other times, the speaker just doesn't happen to put a lot of affect in to what they're saying because they know context makes it clear. (Or they think it does.)

    But I bet if asked people to try to indicate their actual level of approval by their tone of voice, they could enable listeners to do much better than chance.

    But, for what it's worth, here are my guesses

    1 + (Sounded like a positive response as part of a discussion of completed tasks)
    2 – (the sigh afterward sounded negative)
    3 + (Sounds cheerful)
    4 – (A little tight)
    5 – (Sounded exaggerated, but some people come off that way when they're being sincere.)
    6 + ("Oh, great, I'm happy for you")

  35. fog said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 12:19 am

    sincere are 1, 3, 5, 6.
    sarcastic are 2, 4.

  36. Claire said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 1:18 am

    I think 2, 4, and probably 5 are the sarcastic ones. (There's something about the combination of vowels and intonation in #5 that I'm not sure about.)

    "If I think about my own use of irony, I take pains NOT to use a sarcastic tone. Someone says to me, 'There's a flood in the basement and the janitor won't have it cleared up until late this afternoon,' and I say in as bright and cheerful a tone as possible, 'Outstanding!'"

    I sometimes do this with "Awesome" – my tone of voice there is not my "deliberately trying to be sarcastic" tone (the one I would use for something like "yeah, sure"), but it's still different from the one I use to say that something is actually awesome. I also have a tendency to make sort of deadpan jokes, though, and try to keep a normal tone to make a pun funnier or something. (My less perceptive friends sometimes think I'm serious…) But yeah, what I tried to judge here was whether they were trying to sound sarcastic.

  37. kktkkr said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 2:14 am

    My vote's for 3,4 ironic and the others literal.

  38. Barrie England said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 2:27 am

    I agree with Shmuel. Language exists within a context and it is impossible to know a speaker's intention without knowing who the speaker is, who the speaker is talking to, the nature of their relationship, the topic under discussion and the circumstances in which it is being discussed, without, in short, of being aware, in Halliday's terms, of the tenor, mode and field.

  39. Mel said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 2:45 am

    Well, obviously we can't really be sure, but I think 3 and 6 sound likely to be literal and 5 sounds *very* sarcastic (I'm surprised at how overwhelmingly people think it sounds sincere).

  40. Vireya said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 3:34 am

    I don't think irony is indicated by tone of voice. I can imagine any of these being ironic or literal, depending on the speaker and the context. However, 1 and 2 sound to me like "great" is being used the way I might use it when I was not happy about something, because of the falling intonation. Those with rising intonations sound more literal, but I know people who would use a rising intonation ironically. Number 5 is interesting because I can imagine a teenager genuinely speaking like this.

  41. Yerushalmi said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 3:48 am

    I agree with the first two comments: 1, 2, and 4 are ironic; 3, 5, and 6 are literal.

    Now, the complication is this: I don't know how these people normally speak. Mel, for instance, who says 5 sounds very sarcastic – I disagree. I think that's a normal tone of voice for the speaker.

    This has already been said above (by Shmuel, Barrie England, etc.). I think the mistake here, Mark, is that the "context" as referred to in the Zits comic isn't merely tone of voice – it's tone of voice as compared to usual tones of voice for that speaker. Once you have that context, it's virtually impossible not to be able to differentiate sarcasm and sincerity. It's that context that's missing in both text messages and the samples above.

  42. J Lee said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 4:17 am

    On a second (more like 20th) listen, #5 is more ambiguous than my initial instinct — also I think I hear her interlocutor saying that something was the '[dumbest] thing I ever heard.' It's inaudible but that phrase template and his own tone leads me that way. So I will flip-flop on this one.

  43. Ray Dillinger said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 4:19 am

    Whenever I load the page, all of them play at once. It's a peculiar chorus.

    I can get them one at a time by clicking on them though.

    1, 3, 5, and 6 sound sincere.
    2 and 4 sound ironic.

  44. Alex said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 4:52 am

    I think the interpretation of these sound files refers indirectly to something that Asif Agha discusses in his paper "Voice, Footing, and Enregisterment" (2005, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology). He writes:

    "the general point that enregistered voices are always and only experienced in the course of entextualized voicing effects is no less important in the case of appropriate use. […] The term appropriate use never describes a token-level phenomenon; it is a name for a token-to-text relationship. For in the absence of an evaluation that links a register token to surrounding or entextualized semiotic effects […] we can never evaluate the usage as appropriate in any meaningful sense of the term. We call a register’s usage “appropriate to context” when co-occurring signs are congruent with, or satisfy, the model of context indexed by the register token."

    Thus, listening to 6 decontextualized examples of different people saying "Oh, great" with different tones of voice won't necessarily lead to a "proper" interpretation of the sound files because context is lacking. A register's use and identification rely on the context of its use. Tone of voice may indeed help one identify another's use of irony, but not without proper context.

    So, I agree with what I see to be Mark Liberman's implication that tone of voice is not the only way one can identify another's use of irony, but I also think it's a trick question.

  45. William said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 5:07 am

    I heard all of them as positve (with some elements of surprise), with the exception of #2.

  46. Alex said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 5:56 am

    Comment #2: I hadn't yet read Mark's previous post about the Zits cartoon. Now I have, so I see where he was going with this one. :P

  47. Breffni said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 6:41 am

    Two independent votes (me and my wife) for the following:

    1. Literal
    2. Ironic
    3. Literal
    4. Ironic

    6. Literal

    On 5, my wife says literal, and I can't tell.

  48. codeman38 said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 11:39 am

    As an aside: For anyone who can't access Flash for whatever reason, you can get to the audio files by replacing the hash sign in "languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/ohgreat#.mp3" with the digits from 1 to 6.

    Posting this mainly because I looked at this post on an iPhone earlier and saw a bunch of error messages telling me to install a plugin that doesn't exist.

  49. Mark F. said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

    By the way, people need to lay off Alanis Morisette. Quoting the OED, irony, sense 2:

    a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things

    I think that pretty much sums up the micro-vignettes in "Isn't it Ironic".

  50. Mary Bull said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

    They all sound bored to me. Does bored with the one they're listening to equal ironic? None of them sounds enthusiastic in the way I would characterize as positive. NB, I've agreed (albeit silently) all along with MYL's point, in both his posts on this topic.

  51. Ray Girvan said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

    @Mary Bull: They all sound bored to me

    I agree. The positive ones are all about things that are probably deeply uninteresting to the listener – a family reunion going skiing, mechanics and engineering, catching a big fish, and an unremarkable college major subject – where the "Oh, great" appears to be a polite response (meaning "I suppose that's nice if you like that sort of thing") rather than actively positive evaluation.

  52. Teresa G said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

    While I certainly agree with the larger point that ML is illustrating here (and I very much appreciate these sound clips–I was hoping for a set of examples like this to support your position), I think the case could be made that we're not quite comparing apples to apples here.

    In each of the truly ironic cases (1 and 4), the "oh great" is said as part of a larger utterance by a single speaker indicating their reaction to an event in a story they are telling. In all of the literal cases, the "oh great" is simply conversational filler on the part of the addressee to show they're engaged and paying attention.

    I expect that the lack of intonational/"tone of voice" cues for irony would still hold with more conversationally similar examples, but it would be nice to see it nevertheless (if you ever decide to revisit this again).


  53. Ellen K. said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 7:03 pm

    My thinking is that tone of voice contributes, but in context, and along with context, as merely one of multiple clues to meaning.

  54. J Lee said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 11:48 pm

    I'm not surprised #2 has by far the most wrong guesses (it's also the only one which the provided context still doesn't disambiguate — a lot of people aren't enthused about family reunions or New Hampshire).

    Usage for 'back-channeling' — where it is much more likely to be subdued/muffled than if it were her turn and she didn't risk interruption — is something we couldn't anticipate without at least knowing it was a conversation.
    And yet, in addition to her falling pitch, I hear a distinct sigh-like release of the glottis at the end. So I'm gonna say she was poorly feigning sincerity, which ought to give me another half-point!

    In any case, I'd say this did little to disprove the notion that sarcasm or irony is primarily indicated by tone of voice.

  55. Ray Girvan said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 5:05 am

    @ J Lee: a lot of people aren't enthused about family reunions or New Hampshire

    Nor, as I said, about boxes of fish, engineering/mechanics, or fine art degrees. For #6, the jokey final comment suggests that B, if not ironic, isn't enthused about the subject.

  56. Mark F. said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 11:36 am

    Certainly tone of voice tells you something about the emotional state of the speaker, or sometimes the emotional state they want to convey. I think ML's claim is that there's no such thing as a specifically ironic tone of voice.

    For instance, poorly feigned sincerity is an entirely different thing than irony.

  57. How do you speak ironically? « Science and Language said,

    February 1, 2011 @ 8:02 pm

    […] Lieberman did an interesting post in his Language Log.  He found six natural examples of people saying "Oh, Great" in […]

  58. oh, great « The Mereological Report said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

    […] Think you can recognize irony by tone of voice alone?  Try. […]

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