Pragmatic and semantic information interplay in ironic meaning computation: evidence from “pragmatic-semantic” P600 effect

Michela Balconi, Simona Amenta

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective: It is generally assumed that, in order to derive the meaning of complex communicative phenomena, such as irony, contextual and common knowledge should enter the comprehension process (Hagoort et al., 2004). Recently, semantic-P600 ERP effect has been associated to figurative language comprehension, in general, and irony in particular (Kutas et al., 2006; Regel, 2006), suggesting that pragmatic interpretation of ironic sentences requires specific inferential processes in order to derive contextual-compatible meanings. Participants and Methods: In our study, we used ERPs to compare familiar ironic and literal sentences processing in order to asses if ironic and literal meaning comprehension could involve similar or different processes and whether peculiar components of ironic processing could be identified. Fifteen subjects read 100 short stories ending either literally or ironically. Results: Morphological ERP analyses showed a similar pattern of activation for irony and literality in the initial phases of comprehension, and a positive deflection, for both conditions, at mean latencies of 600ms, with an increased amplitude in anterior areas. The ANOVA performed found no difference relative to this positive component throughout the conditions, while confirming its increase in anterior areas. Conclusions: Our data showed that familiar irony processing seem not to differ qualitatively from non-ironic comprehension since, for both conditions, late processes of contextual and pragmatic information implementation in sentence meaning seem to be involved (Bornkessel- Schlesewsky, 2008). Furthermore, the increase of this “semantic-pragmatic” P600 in anterior areas suggests frontal lobes have a major role in taking into account background knowledge and speakers’ communicative intents in meaning co-construction.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)86-86
Number of pages1
JournalJournal of the International Neuropsychological Society
Publication statusPublished - 2009


  • ERPs
  • pragmatic
  • semantic


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