Irony 101


I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had trouble grasping the concept of irony. I hear people saying ‘that’s ironic’ all the time. But is it ironic? I wouldn’t really know. Well I didn’t know until I did some learning (I highly recommend that if you want to know things). Now all the secrets are mine. And now I want to share some of these secrets with you. Let’s talk about irony. What is it? And what does it look like when it’s in use?
What is irony? Well, the Oxford dictionary says it is:

A. The expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.

B. A state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often wryly amusing as a result.

So that’s what it means, but what does it actually look like? Because a definition doesn’t really tell you much, does it? Let’s look at meaning A. Have you ever said one thing but most definitely meant the opposite, especially when you’re making fun of something? For example, “The movie was so fantastic, wasn’t it? I’ve never seen that plot before.” That’s irony. ‘But Imogen’, you might say, ‘that’s sarcasm, not irony’. Aha! But sarcasm is actually a form of irony. Typically, sarcasm is sharper than just plain irony and is often said in frustration or anger, whereas irony is gentler and is generally used when you’re trying to be funny. But it’s the same basic concept.

So that’s meaning A. What about meaning B? I’ve always struggled a bit with this one myself. What is an ironic situation? Well, as the definition states, an ironic situation is one which is quite unexpected and very likely to give you a giggle. If a fire engine was on fire, that would be unexpected, wouldn’t it? And a bit funny too. I mean, if there is one thing that you’d think shouldn’t be on fire it’s the thing that puts fires out, right? What about a weatherman picking the day for his wedding, and having storms all day? Well, you’d expect the weatherman to be able to pick a nice sunny day. So it’s unexpected, and a bit funny too. Both of these are what you would call, ironic situations.

When it comes down to it, irony isn’t nearly as hard to understand as it might first appear. Hopefully this makes irony a little clearer. As a little bonus, I’d like to share an ironic humorous piece I wrote. Now go ye forth and be ironic! Or at least feel superior because you know what irony truly is.

Dear Councillor,

I’m writing to congratulate you on the excellent progress your council workers have made on the new car park. According to the flyer you kindly placed in my letterbox a while back, construction of the new parking lot was supposed to take 3-4 weeks. 6 weeks later and the workers are still going strong. I’m impressed by their dedication. Judging by the amount and frequency of their coffee breaks, they must be pouring their hearts into their work. I look forward to having their company at the construction site for many weeks to come.

Their dedication to quality in their work is also to be commended. Most teams have a ratio of one overseer to twenty or so workers, more if it’s a big project. Your team has taken quite the opposite approach and have chosen to increase the number of overseers. I ask you, how is a worker ever supposed to get anything done right if he doesn’t have twenty overseers constantly watching to make sure he’s not making mistakes? No wonder their work is always of such high standard.

Once again, thank you for assigning your best workers to their job. The quality of their work is famous in this area. Maybe when they’re finished with the car park you might consider putting them to the task of patching the pot holes. Unfortunately the beautiful patch job your last team spent five months completing washed away last week, just as they’d finished the job too. There’s no accounting for the weather.
 Yours sincerely,

An Appreciative Resident

Did you find this helpful at all? Are you already a pro in irony? Would you like to see more posts on specific elements of writing, like this one, in the future? Tell me, what ironic situations can you think up? Tell me in the comments!

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  1. Ha, this is lovely! Technically, sarcasm is the harsher subset of verbal irony, and there are other types of irony. BUT, that's just the literature student in me speaking! A really great summary of what irony is, totally going to share this on Twitter :)

    1. Very true. Maybe I should do a part 2 in the future and dig deeper into irony in the future? I considered talking about different kinds of irony, but I think the basics were enough for me to grapple with in one post. I'm glad it passes your approval though. You sound so much more knowledgeable on the subject than I!

  2. Haha, great letter. Yes, this was very helpful! I think you've perfectly summed up irony. This may even help me explain it to others who just cannot seem to grasp the concept...

    1. I'm so glad you liked the letter. I had the best time writing that. And I'm glad you found this useful. I've struggled so much in the past trying to understand this myself that it's good to finally be able to explain it to other people in a simple way.

  3. I love studying irony, especially in lit at school! I definitely think your explanation is important to remember—if you plan on studying fiction of any kind, you must have irony tattooed on your eyeballs, because it is EVERYWHERE. Indeed, this is truth. *nods* Great post, Imogen!


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