Words at work

– 10 min read

Irony: definition, types, and examples

Holly Stanley

Holly Stanley


“That’s so ironic!” We’ve all probably uttered these words at some point. In fact, you probably hear “isn’t it ironic?” all the time. Irony is one of the English language’s most misused and abused words. 

Irony has become synonymous with coincidence, bad luck, and pleasant surprises. But most things in life aren’t ironic

So if coincidences, bad luck, and unusual situations aren’t, what is ironic? Let’s track down the misused word and uncover what situations it pertains to. 

Irony definition

The use of irony shows the contrast or incongruity between how things appear and how they are in reality. The remark “how ironic” indicates a meaning that’s the opposite of its precise meaning. 

In an ironic phrase, one thing is said, while another thing is meant. For example, if it were a cold, rainy gray day, you might say, “What a beautiful day!” Or, alternatively, if you were suffering from a bad bout of food poisoning, you might say, “Wow, I feel great today.”

These are both examples of irony –– verbal irony, to be precise –– the most frequently used type of irony (more on that later.)

Where does the word irony come from? 

Looking at irony’s origins can help with understanding how to best use the word. The word irony comes from the Latin ironia, meaning “feigned ignorance,” and previously from the Greek eironeia. Eiron, a Greek comic, was an intelligent underdog who used his wit to triumph over the egotistical character Alazon.

Since irony describes an outcome that contrasts with the originally expected results, you’ll see that writers generally use irony to build tension, create humor, or as a plot twist. 

When is something not ironic? 

When pinpointing the definition of irony, it can be helpful to look at when situations are incorrectly labeled as ironic. Irony is often used as a synonym for a caustic remark, something that’s interesting, or sarcastic.

The definition of irony

What about the song Ironic

Even singer Alanis Morissette got the definition wrong in her hit 1995 single “Ironic.” In fact, the criticism of her song was so strong, she had to clarify that she wasn’t technically trying to say that every line of the song was ironic.

Let’s take a closer look at Morissette’s timeless song lyrics:

It’s like rain on your wedding day,

It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid,

It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take.

While it could be considered bad luck, rain on a wedding day isn’t ironic, since it’s not as though it’s a given that every wedding day will have perfect sunny weather.

In a similar vein, a free ride when you’ve already paid or not taking good advice isn’t ironic either. The former is unusual and the latter is something that’s interesting.


Types of irony

To help you better understand irony and how to use it in your writing, we’ll dive into five different types.

Verbal irony 

Verbal irony is when the intended meaning of a phrase is the opposite of what is meant. It’s a figure of speech used to emphasize the contrast in meanings. It’s often used as a way of injecting witty humor into someone’s speech or writing. 

There are many English expressions that epitomize verbal irony. Here are a few:

•  “Fat chance!”

•  “Clear as mud”

•  “As soft as concrete”

Verbal irony works best as a literary technique when the reader already knows the initial concepts. For instance, it’s common knowledge that concrete is hard, and mud is opaque.

As you might imagine, an ironic understatement creates contrast by undermining the impact of something, despite the subject itself being quite severe. 

In J.D. Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye, the character Holden Caulfield says, “I have to have this operation. It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.”

Of course, having a brain tumor is a serious health issue, which Holden downplays in this excerpt. 

Alternatively, an ironic overstatement makes something insignificant sound like a bigger deal than it is to highlight how minor it is. Statements like these are figurative language and are the opposite of their literal meaning.

Say you go for a job interview, but it’s a trainwreck because you spill coffee on your brand-new suit, are 20 minutes late, and forget the interviewer’s name. Your partner asks you how it went and you say, “Aced it, best interview of my life” –– that’s an ironic overstatement.

If verbal irony sounds like it’s pretty familiar, it’s because sarcasm is actually a form of verbal irony (more on that later.) 

Dramatic irony 

A favorite in many famous movies and books, dramatic irony is a literary device where the reader or spectator knows critical information but the characters don’t. 

One of the most famous examples of literary dramatic irony is in O. Henry’s short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” A recently married couple chooses independently to sacrifice and sell what means most to them to buy a Christmas gift for the other. 

But in a twist of fate, the gifts they receive from each other are meant for the prized possessions they just sold. Although their sacrifices show the love they have for one another, the gifts they receive are actually useless.

Dramatic irony is a staple in horror movies. For example, the main character hides under the bed where the killer is hiding (the audience knows the killer is there but the protagonist doesn’t.) This form of irony is a great way of keeping the audience on the edge of their seats and building tension. 

Tragic irony 

In tragic irony, a subset of dramatic irony, the words, and actions of the characters contradict reality, often in a tragic or devastating way, which the readers or spectators realize.

Tragic irony came to define many ancient Greek tragedies. For instance, in Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex,” the audience can see what Oedipus is blind to: he’s actually killing his own father. 

William Shakespeare was also a fan of using tragic irony to keep the audience gripped to a compelling, often sorrowful plotline. In Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo is alerted of Juliet’s death, he assumes the tragic news to be true. 

But the audience knows that Juliet has, in fact, just faked her death with the help of a potion. Romeo, on the other hand, thinks Juliet is dead and, as a result, commits suicide.

Socratic irony 

Socratic irony gets its name from the moral philosopher Socrates, who would often fake ignorance to reveal someone’s misconstrued assumptions. It’s one of the more manipulative types of irony and is one way of getting information out of someone that can then be used against them later. 

You might recognize socratic irony in courtroom scenes from legal dramas like Suits. Lawyers often use rhetorical tricks, like socratic irony, to get someone to confess or admit something. 

Socratic irony is also perfect for comedies, too. In a classic scene from the American comedy The Office, Michael knows that Dwight lied about going to the dentist. When Dwight returns, Michael goes for some rather ineffective rhetorical questioning to try and catch Dwight out. 


Situational irony 

Situational irony or the “irony of events” is when the reality contradicts an expected outcome. 

In movies and literature, situational irony ensures things are unpredictable and interesting. After all, it’d be dull if the plot turned out exactly how we expected every time. It’s not how life or fictional storytelling works. 

With situational irony, we learn at the same time as the characters that our expectations are different from reality.

For example in American Psycho, Patrick Bateman confesses to committing a string of murders but is laughed off. We anticipate that he’ll be punished for his crimes, but he isn’t, making it a perfect example of situational irony.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is another story full of examples of situational irony. Dorothy longs to go home and fulfills the wizard’s demanding list of tasks only to find out she had the ability to return home all along. The lion who appears to be a coward is actually courageous and the scarecrow who wants to be intelligent is actually a genius.

Situational irony is linked to the concept of cosmic irony –– when the universe or gods seemingly conspire for an event for its own amusement. 

Cosmic irony is a subcategory of situational irony but is defined by the inclusion of a supernatural element. There’s still a situation where the reality and expectation are different but there is another element involved –– a higher power if you will. This could be god, the universe, or fate. 

Remember that the “irony of events” isn’t the same as a coincidence or plain bad luck. 

What’s the difference between irony and sarcasm?

Ah, “sarcasm the lowest form of wit” as the writer, Oscar Wilde, once said. While Wilde wasn’t a fan, a sarcastic jibe here and there isn’t always bad news.

People often mix up irony and sarcasm. As we touched on briefly above, sarcasm is actually a type of irony. 

So the difference between sarcasm and irony is pretty small and nuanced. Once you’re clear on how sarcasm fits into irony, you won’t find yourself identifying sarcasm as irony again.

In its simplest form, irony refers to situations where the outcome is the opposite of what you or the reader expect. 

If a prediction is black, then the outcome would be white. Not off-white or gray, it would have to be totally the opposite of black. 

Sarcasm, on the other hand, is a form of expression that’s generally pointed at a person with the objective of criticizing or denigrating someone. Sarcasm is usually insincere speech and can have a condescending tone to it, with the purpose of insulting or embarrassing someone. 

Let’s take a look at both verbal irony and sarcasm side by side:

Verbal irony — Wife saying, “What a beautiful stormy day for a swim.”

Sarcasm —  Husband saying to the same wife, “The middle of the hurricane season was a great time for a vacation out here.” 

See how with verbal irony, it’s ironic because the weather isn’t beautiful for swimming. Instead, the opposite is true –– it’s unpleasant and sometimes dangerous to swim during a storm. 

But sarcasm is making a sneering comment about choosing to go on vacation in the middle of hurricane season. When you see the two statements together, it’s easier to see how they differ from one another. 

Let’s look at some more sarcasm examples:

•  After someone tells a boring or never-ending story: “That’s so fascinating.”

•  After failing your driving test: “Well, that went well.” 

•  Self-deprecating:Dinner is burned, I’m such a great chef.

To easily differentiate between sarcasm and irony, remember that irony applies to situations while sarcasm is a form of expression. In a way, sarcasm is like irony dressed up with a sassy attitude.

Key takeaways: irony

So, that’s a wrap. Irony isn’t all that difficult to wrap your head around when you know what to look for. Ultimately, irony is just the use of words to express something that’s the opposite of the literal meaning.

When used correctly, irony helps you inject humor and wit into your writing while keeping things interesting and unexpected for the reader. 

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