Can you write sarcasm, or should it be “writing sarcastically”? Is it best to use the noun form or the adverb form? Does it matter? Stephen King said the adverb is not your friend. An adverb modifies verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in –ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.
Is Stephen King right, ethically? Probably, but does he mean use no adverbs, or just use them sparingly? How does sparingly square with sarcastically? Those who usually write timidly, or passively often are not expressing themselves clearly. There, I’ve done it; 138 words, of which only 13 are ly-adverbs. Ten percent is not bad, eh?
The above is sarcasm depending on how we usually define it. Hopefully, this entire blog will be disgustingly sarcastic. Sir Oxford defines sarcasm as the use of irony to mock or convey contempt. Theoretically we could reverse that and say irony is using sarcasm to withhold contempt. But that would be silly, which makes sense out of sil. Said differently, verbal irony is a figure of speech that communicates the opposite of what is said, while sarcasm is a form of irony directed at a person, specifically intending to criticize.
While this blog is occasionally funny, there is a serious writing and ethical issue in sarcastic writing or speaking. The Smithsonian Magazine captured it in 2011. “Actually, scientists are finding that the ability to detect sarcasm really is useful. For the past 20 years, researchers from linguists to psychologists to neurologists have been studying our ability to perceive snarky remarks and gaining new insights into how the mind works. Studies have shown that exposure to sarcasm enhances creative problem solving, for instance. Children understand and use sarcasm by the time they get to kindergarten. An inability to understand sarcasm may be an early warning sign of brain disease. Sarcasm detection is an essential skill if one is going to function in a modern society dripping with irony. “Our culture in particular is permeated with sarcasm,” says Katherine Rankin, a neuropsychologist at the University of California at San Francisco. “People who don’t understand sarcasm are immediately noticed. They’re not getting it. They’re not socially adept.”
When someone says, “Aren’t you special,” he means you aren’t. Sarcastic statements are a true lie. You’re saying something you don’t literally mean, and the communication works as intended only if your listener gets that you’re insincere. Sarcasm has a two-faced quality: it’s both funny and mean. This dual nature has led to contradictory theories on why we use it.
Oscar Wilde, the connoisseur of wit, said, “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence. Whether sarcasm is a sign of intelligence or not, communication experts and marriage counselors alike typically advise us to stay away from this particular form of expression. The reason is simple: sarcasm expresses the poisonous sting of contempt, hurting others and harming relationships. As a form of communication, sarcasm takes on the debt of conflict.”
Therein lies the ethical imperative when writing sarcastically. Writing to sting, hurt, show contempt, or harm readers is per se unethical. Unless you’re a former president or a future dictator.
Whether writing sarcastically, ironically, or satirically, writers should be witty about it. Andy Borowitz certainly is. Here is his satirical masterpiece published in The New Yorker on December 14, 2022.
“THE BAHAMAS (The Borowitz Report)—People around the world have been flabbergasted to learn that a man who created a business based on imaginary money might be a fraud. In interviews spanning the globe, respondents expressed shock and disbelief that a firm offering customers wealth by turning their actual money into pretend money could be anything but legitimate. ‘I’m still trying to wrap my head around this,’ Johan, who is based in Sweden, said. ‘How could a business built on a foundation of nonexistent dollars somehow collapse?’ ‘I’m completely gobsmacked by the news,’ Caitlyn, who lives in London, said. ‘Of all of the firms offering big returns on made-up money, this one seemed the most solid.’ Roger, who lives in Michigan, expressed concern about the broader implications of a company swimming in fictitious billions suddenly going bankrupt. ‘I just hope that one bad apple doesn’t wreck the entire fake-money industry,’ he said.”
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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