Dissecting the Frog: on Sarcastic Paraphrase

“Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better, but the frog dies in the process.”

Academia has no shortage of theories of humor, many of which attempt to explain what humor is at a fundamental level. While I’m sure such findings are useful for development of AI, the everyday applicability of such theories is questionable. To put it another way: knowing the roots of language on a fundamental level does not help someone improve their grammar. Knowing what nouns and pronouns are will.

Applying this assumption to literature yields the study of literary devices, and rhetorical devices for communication in general. Another word for “device” is “trope”. In theory, classifying tropes is something a lot of people like to do. TVTropes grew wildly popular for this reason. Yet somewhere along the line, the study of rhetorical tropes fell by the wayside. Silva Rhetoricae is a remnant of this, but to my knowledge no TVTropes-like community exists for categorizing rhetorical devices.

Humor and informal writing get even less attention. Why humor is so neglected yet plots are analyzed to death, I’m not sure. Being funny isn’t that hard, but maybe more people suck at it than I think. In my head though I’ve come up with a lot of categories for humor, simply for the purposes of categorizing the patterns in what makes me laugh.

To compensate for the dearth of rhetorical analysis of comedy, I’m starting this series dedicated to classifying humor tropes. The quote about “dissecting the frog” above is true — once I fully understand the mechanics of a joke, I find it a lot less funny unless someone has a witty take on the device. But that’s less because I think the device has lost its spark, and more because a complete understanding of its mechanics makes its user seem less original. So continue reading at your own peril, I guess, but you’ll be judged either way. It’s a hard knock life.

Sarcastic Paraphrase

This device is discourse cancer. Seriously. If you mapped the downfall of a forum relative to how frequently this device is used, I would bet money you could get a strong positive correlation going. There is this mistaken assumption that satire, including this kind of satire, is intelligent or witty or indicative of intellectual sophistication. It is none of those things. Satire is easy. Writing like The Onion isn’t hard. The sarcastic paraphrase is one of the laziest ways to argue, because it doesn’t require a clear and coherent logical structure — the terms of argument are implied. As such, fallacies are harder to expose.

The sarcastic paraphrase presents a loud or obnoxious mocking paraphrase of the opponent’s position with a counter-position implied through the sarcasm. (It does not have to be in all caps. You can sound sarcastic if you write with exclamation points, too!) This should be easy to visualize, but as an example:

Megan: I don’t think we can sustain social security into the 21st century.


Here, Christina thinks defunding social security will make poor people starve and mocks Megan because, in Christina’s view, Megan’s position so fails to live up to this criterion that it is worthy of derision. That is, Christina’s actual position can be rephrased this way:

Megan: I don’t think we can sustain social security into the 21st century.

Christina: Social security prevents people, chief among them poor people, from starving. Defunding it will make poor people starve.

“Wow, Christina is pretty bad at debating,” you might say.

Sarcastic paraphrase is not invalid in and of itself. However, it is to argumentation what myspace angles are to beauty what playing fast is to piano what added sweetening is to wine: it makes imperfections harder to recognize.

When phrased in a direct way, Christina’s position has more transparent flaws. Even if Christina’s position were true, if social security is unsustainable — that is, funding it perpetually will eventually collapse the economy — Christina would have a lot more to worry about than poor people starving, because poor people would starve either way. (This assuming Megan’s claim is true; I don’t know whether or not social security is unsustainable.)

A more direct refutation would attack the sustainability issue itself, asserting that it is sustainable, that the concept of economic sustainability is somehow flawed, etc. — but through sarcasm, the faults of the counterargument are harder to see.

Sarcastic Strawman

Sarcastic strawman is a subcategory of the sarcastic paraphrase. Since the sarcastic paraphrase mocks an opponents position and most people are bad at getting the positions of their opponents right to begin with, you better believe all kinds of people will misrepresent the position of their opponents.

Megan: I don’t think we can sustain social security into the 21st century. We have to think about our deficit and how much we’re spending on government programs.


Christina’s error here should be obvious:

  • Christina has exaggerated the extent to which Megan is in favor of regulation. Megan was not calling to deregulate all government programs, or even a large number of government programs. Her position calls for deficit-sensitive reductions in government programs and probably a scaling back of social security; that could be a lot, or it could be a little.
  • Christina has taken Megan for a smug libertarian and pinned that attitude on Megan via mockery of the smug libertarian attitude, but we don’t know if Megan actually thinks of herself that way. (Even if Megan was a Ron Paul voter, it wouldn’t be germane to the argument, since Megan doesn’t have to support 100% of Paul’s platform and nothing could be inferred with certainty from her support of Paul.)

These errors are obvious because I’ve made them obvious. Yet I know for a fact that many readers of this page will ‘upvote’ or ‘like’ similar retorts to Christina’s when it agrees with their own view.

Depending on what areas of the internet you call home, Christina’s response may range from unthinkable to all-too-familiar. You may even be this person, in which case someone probably linked you here because the sarcastic strawman is what you just did. (Noble, though turning someone who frequently argues via rhetorical positioning into someone who adheres to rules of rational argumentation is an uphill battle.)

Here is a real life example, from reddit, that 23 people other than the author thought was good enough to upvote:

A: Wait, so any racism is now grounds for worstof? No. No it’s not, this isn’t r/SRS. We’re not the PC police.*

B: yeah dude racism is awesome. more like bestof am i right? as a white person i think this is hilarious therefore it should not be in worstof because its a great post. lol black people and their crazy made up holidays am i right?

* (“worstof” is a “hall of shame”-style community, “r/SRS” is the feminist counterpart.)


“Translated” is a variant of sarcastic paraphrase where instead of mocking/paraphrasing the opponent’s position, they paraphrase what they think is the opponent’s intent. You could alternatively call this “sarcastic translation” but I like “translated” (with quotemarks) better because that’s the context most people usually hear it in.

Megan: Taxing Americans in the 250-500k range would probably just tax cognitively demanding professions like engineers and doctors; you should tax people in the 500k+ range, because most of those jobs are in finance.

Christina: Translation: “Don’t take away money from my family, take it from those guys one step above me! We’re good people, honest!”

Megan believes that jobs in the 250k-500k range are great contributions to society; Christina believes that Megan is giving a shallow excuse for greedy motives.

You don’t know if Megan is acting entirely out of greed, but that doesn’t affect the truth of what Megan is saying. The argument that doctors and engineers provide a worth to society beyond their contribution to the economy is not new. However, Christina has failed to attack the truth of that statement. She could do this in several ways: by arguing that professions in the 500k-1M income range provide an equivalent societal benefit, or by arguing that the societal benefit of professions in the 250k-500k range is not what Megan says it is.

Christina’s response is the motive fallacy. Instead of addressing what the opponent is arguing, she’s addressed the reasons they could be making the argument. The official term for this is “ad hominem circumstantial” because it attacks the circumstances under which someone is making an argument, not the truth of that argument’s claims.

In 2007, one of the first reddit novelty accounts was devoted to entirely this device. Republicans use this to describe democrats. Democrats use this to describe republicans. It’s a pretty common device.

Attacking intent is really easy to do, and it’s probably the most common fallback for everyday arguments. It’s also a dumb way to argue, because even if you could get someone to agree with your assessment of their intent, there’s no guarantee they know what it is. Humanity is a suggestible species. There is an entire psychological category that measures how likely people are to believe things other people say about them. They could be agreeing with you because your arguments sound more believable than their own introspection, but not because you’re actually right:

Psychological studies of confessions that have proved false show an overrepresentation of children, the mentally ill and mentally retarded, and suspects who are drunk or high. They are susceptible to suggestion, eager to please authority figures, disconnected from reality or unable to defer gratification. Children often think, as Felix did, that they will be jailed if they keep up their denials and will get to go home if they go along with interrogators. Mature adults of normal intelligence have also confessed falsely after being manipulated. (via NYT / Shipler)

That said, criticizing intent isn’t terrible. It’s not the end of the world. It’s just a really bad way to argue, which is unfortunate because it’s also a ubiquitous way to argue. And criticisms of intent are not necessarily fallacious, as long as they’re not intended as counterarguments.

I’m Not Making An Argument

Ever since Stephen Bond’s “ad hominem fallacy fallacy” started circulating web discussions, this line became a parachute for bad arguers the world over: “if it’s not an argument, it’s not an ad hominem argument.” Since the ad hominem fallacy fallacy is a variant of argument from fallacy, it can be expanded to this article’s concepts. Witness:

Megan: Taxing Americans in the 250-500k range would probably just tax cognitively demanding professions like engineers and doctors; you should tax people in the 500k+ range, because most of those jobs are in finance.

Christina: Translation: “Don’t take away money from my family, take it from those guys one step above me! We’re good people, honest!”

Megan: The “translated” thing is not a valid counterargument.

Christina: Wow, you don’t even know how to apply fallacies. I wasn’t treating that as a counterargument.

(Anyone named “Christina” probably hates me by now.)

That someone didn’t intend something as a counterargument is a valid excuse if there is a counterargument to the truth of a claim present in the argument.

Christina’s reply is an argument-by-context. Sarcasm and mockery use context-sensitive irony to allow the reader to infer arguments. Christina has presented this “translated” device in the context of an argument, where it will be treated as a counterargument. Christina has presented her rhetoric in an argumentative mode; she cannot opt-out of the rules of argument by claiming she didn’t intend to argue in the first place.


“I didn’t intend this cartoon as an argument,” said by hopefully no one ever.

Art, fiction and media in general can imply arguments without stating them directly. This should be obvious, but for “I didn’t intend that as a counterargument” to work there can be no arguments except those explicitly stated.

The above cartoon is clearly a criticism of some action on part of a government authority that the author thinks is suppressing the truth. This is an argument and can be treated as such. That it is implied, or indirect, or not explicitly stated is irrelevant.

The “fallacy fallacy” reasoning holds if there is contextual reason to believe the arguer is making an argument other than the allegedly fallacious one, such as if they actually do that:

Megan: Taxing Americans in the 250-500k range would probably just tax cognitively demanding professions like engineers and doctors; you should tax people in the 500k+ range, because most of those jobs are in finance.

Christina: Translation: “Don’t take away money from my family, take it from those guys one step above me!” The 250k-500k range is not different from the 500k-1M range. There are many startup founders in that income range which use equivalent cognitive capacity as the engineers and doctors you mention, and their startups have provided a definite value to society on par with the engineers and doctors you mention. I feel you are being partial to this income bracket because you are in it, but it’s not special in the way that you’re suggesting.

Megan: Wow, a “translated” from you Christina? You realize that’s a fallacy, right?

Christina: It would be if that was my only counter, but the fact that cognitively demanding professions exist in the 500k-1M income range is a challenge to the truth of your claim.

Christina finally takes sweet victory and Megan whimpers home to cry and listen to Regina Spektor.


When I was 19 I thought The Daily Show was on the cutting edge of comedy and that awesome, witty sarcastic people were so good at calling out bad reasoning that they’d never idealize a style of argumentation that encourages elementary errors in reasoning.

Turns out I was wrong, hard — at least about witty sarcastic people. Good argumentation does not necessarily follow from wittiness, and witty people can make dumb arguments like everyone else. Intellectual rigor functions less like a community minimum and more like a speed limit: if the standard is 60, people will tend to do that. That is, they’ll be as intellectually rigorous as they have to and no more.

Devices like sarcastic strawman are probably indicative of a decline in a community’s intellectual rigor. The more I see of this technique in a community, the less that community recognizes valid and sound reasoning. (This may not be true the other way around.) Recognizing these devices and pointing them out may help stop their fallacious usage.

The people who would have their use of these devices recognized tend to resist categorization, though. “Resisting categorization” sounds impressive; it’s not. The ambiguity of sarcasm serves as kind of a hedge. If you can be in a state of argumentative limbo, where all that’s sufficient for your exit is to say “I’m not making an argument,” then you can minimize your vulnerability, rhetorically, by arguing this way a lot.

So there’s that, and that fallacies are categorized in the first place because categorization aids recognition. Mental models accelerate thought; a gerund is better understood once it’s actually classified as ‘gerund’, and until then it’s “those words that end in ‘-ing’.” People who list their interests without any connecting words are a lot less impressive once you can categorize this technique as asyndeton. Categorization is amazing and we should do it more often.

The categorization of humorous rhetorical devices is an especially useful activity because humor is frequently used as a vehicle for argument, and by understanding the mechanics of these techniques we can recognize fallacious reasoning when it’s in foreign forms. Some people think this is blasphemous, because humor is this sacred thing immune from analysis, and sarcasm is this exceptional category of human communication.  They’re wrong. Sarcasm is obviously a vehicle for argument, as is satire, as is fiction and as is art. The rules of argumentation don’t stop at explicit argumentation. Besides: far more boring people than me have attempted this analysis, and it’s not like I’m killing a frog or anything.

3 thoughts on “Dissecting the Frog: on Sarcastic Paraphrase

  1. Nice post, although I think you may underestimate how much has been published about the use of humor as a rhetorical device or in a tactical manner.

    One field in which the analysis of the use of humor (rather than a philosophical discussion of the ontology of humor) is ubiquitous is popular culture and film studies. For example, http://earbirding.com/3020summer2011/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/will-and-grace.pdf shows, and I roughly summarize here, how humor is paradoxically used in Will and Grace both to be able to reach a mainstream audience and to defuse the radical potential of the exploration of systematic injustices. There are also plenty of studies analyzing the different use of sarcasm and irony in Biblical books, medieval literature of various European countries etc.

    In communication studies, the use of humor as a rhetorical device is also well-recognized and widely studied. A good introductory article is: “Humor as a double‐edged sword: Four functions of humor in communication” (Meyer, 2000). Note that the various functions, not the various rhetorical forms, are categorized there. I can’t imagine the latter hasn’t been done yet, but I cannot say I know of any such works.

    • Oh, I’m well-aware that literature exists that describes the functions of humor in communication or social settings. I’ve cited some of those studies in papers of my own. The dissection/explication of humor, though, seems like uncharted territory.

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