When phrases are used they can have a certain sentiment. If Alice knocks over a cup of tea, Bob might say "Well done!". If asked what the sentiment of Bob's phrase was, it would be ironic or sarcastic.

My question is, at each stage below, what is the sentiment of "Well done!" at that particular moment? And hence, are there special rules governing the grammar for stage 3 (and hence, 2). Think of "Well done!" like a token in a parsed sentence. It is an object, possibly a lexeme (though I'm not a linguist so don't hold me to that!)

This question has a touch of the philosophical about it. In the same way I could ask is your 10 year old self a different person to you? You are the same person even though you share non of the same cells. I don't know whether that's relevant, I'm looking for a grammatical rule covering the sentiment of a phrase that is retold at the moment of retelling. It has the same letters, it will be parsed in the same way, but it is appearing in a different time and context. What sentiment should be assigned to it?


I'm using a computer to discover sentiments in natural language in chat, so the statements are in written form, but in the style of speech. If it parses the first sentence it may ascertain a certain sentiment. In subsequent parses I need to know what tell the computer to do when it meets quoting - not the punctuation, not "", but the reuse of words and phrases that refer to a previous moment.

My apologies if this seems convoluted or abstruse, but this is obviously an edge case for my analysis and would be a very obscure (to me, anyway) grammar rule if it exists at all.

I've put my guess at the sentiment at the end of each stage.

Stage 1

Alice knocks over tea.
Bob says "Well done!"

Sentiment: ironic.

Stage 2

Bob retells the scene to Charlie…

Alice knocked over her tea, she wasn't paying attention. I said to Alice "Well done!"

The sentiment of Bob's whole speech is sincere (i.e. if asked, Bob says he's being entirely honest).

What is the sentiment of "Well done!" when used at this specific moment? Is it also sincere because the retelling is sincere, or does it have a sentiment that is separate from the overall sentence, retained from its original use?

i.e. is the sentiment of the phrase at stage 2 the same as stage 1, as if it is somehow the same object with the same properties, or is it treated in a different way, a different object with some of the same properties?

Sentiment: none/ not ironic.

Stage 3

Charlie is an alien and new to planet Earth. He can speak English perfectly but hasn't actually used it a lot.

Charlie: I've never heard anyone say that. I don't believe it happens.
Bob: OK. You find me someone saying "Well done!" unironically. (Bob makes little air quotes with his fingers as he says "Well done!")
Charlie: Are you being sincere?
Bob: Yes.
Charlie: OK, then you just said it unironically when you asked the question.
Bob: When I said it, that part was ironically. That's why it's in quotes.
The request is sincere.

So, is Bob's claim possible? Is the sentiment of "Well done!" when he made his request to Charlie the same as when he said it to Alice? This takes the idea in stage 2 one step further, because now Bob has appended the phrase with "unironically".

There are a few options:

  1. The phrase is exactly the same object/token, its repeated use retains all original sentiment regardless of how it is reused later, as long as there is a reference to an original moment.
  2. The original utterance was ironic, but retellings of it the specific use of that phrase at that moment have no sentiment of their own. Obviously, the sense of the original use (that it was ironic) is conveyed in the telling. That's what the telling is for!
  3. It would be 1, but putting a modifier next to it changes the sentiment e.g. "Well done!" would be ironic, but "Well done!" unironically now means it is now unironic.
  4. "Well done!" is ironic. "Well done!" unironically is unironic. Yes, these can exist at the same time - chop it up how you like - so it depends which entire token you refer to in order to find the sentiment.
  5. It has no sentiment of its own, it is now part of the overall request.

My choice: #5.

Phew! I hope that was better than the last attempt at asking this question.

  • 2
    I don't understand your question. If you did a good job, and in response I said, "Well done," there would be nothing ironic about it. On the other hand, if you knocked over a cup of tea, as @WS2 has said, and I respond, "Well done," that would be ironic. Also, I don't understand the comments about the quotation marks. I would include "Well done" inside the quotes whether I intended it as an honest compliment or an ironic condemnation. Commented Sep 18, 2016 at 2:50
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    To me, your use of the quotes seems perfectly natural and conveys no sense of irony. That the question concerns the ironic or unironic use of the term in quotes seems irrelevant. If you want to avoid the "problem" altogether, why not bold or italicize "Well done"? I guess I still don't get it. Sorry. Commented Sep 18, 2016 at 3:22
  • 1
    @RichardKayser That's not problem, thanks for taking the time to look! It could be that I'm talking about the quoting (as in copy/refer to) and not punctuation. But I can see it's a kind of crazy question, but that's why I need help! English can become convoluted, and I'm trying to get a computer to understand it, to add to my woes (o_O)
    – user43453
    Commented Sep 18, 2016 at 4:01
  • 1
    @iain I'm afraid I still don't understand your question. In all those examples - Stage 1 to Stage 3, the reason Well done appears in quotation marks, every time, has nothing to do with whether it is ironic or sincere. It is simply in inverted commas because it is reported speech. I said to Alice "Well done" simply reports what you said to Alice, and is thus in quotes. Had you said, I said to Alice "I like your hair-do" - that too would have been in quotes. –
    – WS2
    Commented Sep 18, 2016 at 23:37
  • 1
    It just so happens that the OP's database is English, but the question seems to be a linguistics problem that has nothing really to do specifically with the English language.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 16:57

2 Answers 2


I believe the answer actually comes in the construction of your sentences. We have created a written method of preserving these tokens: quotation marks. As such, the sentiment of "Well done!" remains sarcastic, no matter how many retellings are completed or how the quotation is reported. The quotation construction explicitly denotes that a piece of speech is being transferred from the past to the present, and as such will not change its original intent.

Per your examples, a sincere repetition of a sarcastic comment is entirely possible; however, the comment remains sarcastic. If it did not, we would never be allowed to complain about reporters taking comments out of context. The context, to include sentiment, is entirely part of the formation of quotations.

So...well done?

  • 2
    ??? Just because something is in quotation marks does not assure that it's meaning is preserved. If quoted out of context the sarcastic meaning is easily lost.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 2:12

Perhaps you could borrow from the playwright's writing book of style, and insert in square brackets things to do with sentiments. E.g.

Alice [ironically] said: "Well done!"


Alice [admiringly] said: "Well done!"


the teacher Alice [encouragingly] said: "Well done!".

A novelist might transmit the sentiment without any square brackets, or a visual cue...e.g.

Raising an eyebrow, Alice said "Well done!"

With a genuinely big smile, Alice said "Well done!"

So for your word-bot, I would advise they look at the adverbs, and then apply your interesting set of rules.

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