What Is Irony? | Definition, Examples & Types

Rhetoric updated on  June 7, 2024 5 min read
Irony is a rhetorical device in which the apparent meaning of a situation or statement is not the same as the underlying meaning. Irony involves a contrast between appearance or expectation and reality.

Irony example
Suppose you and your friend are watching a political candidate give a long and incoherent speech. At the end of the speech, you turn to your friend and say “What a masterclass in public speaking!”

Irony is often used in literature, but you may also encounter it in everyday conversations, movies, or song lyrics. It’s best to avoid irony in academic writing or professional communication to prevent miscommunications.

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What is irony?

Irony is a rhetorical and literary device in which a situation or statement contradicts our expectations. Irony is used in literature to create a discrepancy between what is expected to happen and what actually happens.

For example, irony can occur when a character says the opposite of what they really mean or when an event or action is the opposite of what we had expected. Writers use irony to subvert the readers’ expectations and create humorous, engaging, and thought-provoking stories.

3 types of irony

The three most common types of irony are:

Verbal irony

Verbal irony occurs when someone says one thing but means another. This is done intentionally to convey sarcasm or create humor. Usually, it involves expressing an opinion or sentiment contrary to what the speaker or narrator actually believes. Verbal irony is not the same as lying because the purpose is not to deceive.

Verbal irony example
You are running late for an important meeting because you got stuck in traffic. When you enter the building, someone accidentally spills a cup of hot coffee over your shirt, and you say “this day can’t get any better.”

Situational irony

Situational irony occurs when the results of an action are the opposite of what was intended or expected. The results can be tragic or humorous, but they are always unexpected.

You can find examples of situational irony in everyday life (e.g., when someone posts on social media about how social media is a waste of time). In literature, situational irony is the source of plot twists. Its purpose is to surprise the reader and highlight the unpredictability of the future.

Situational irony example
In Animal Farm, Napoleon, the pig who becomes the leader of the farm after the animals overthrow their human masters, slowly transforms into Mr. Jones (the human owner of the farm). After getting drunk and spending a day recovering from a hangover, Napoleon decides to make his own alcohol:

“By the evening, however, Napoleon appeared to be somewhat better, and the following morning Squealer was able to tell them that he was well on the way to recovery. By the evening of that day Napoleon was back at work, and on the next day it was learned that he had instructed Whymper to purchase in Willingdon some booklets on brewing and distilling.”

This is an example of situational irony because the reader expects that after the animals’ uprising against humans, they will live in harmony. However, at this point in the story the reader realizes that Napoleon is following in the footsteps of the former master, Mr. Jones, who was a drunkard.

Note
In everyday speech, situational irony is often confused with coincidence (e.g., “Isn’t it ironic that the rain stopped just as I was arriving at home?”). However, they are not exactly the same.

Situational irony is when the opposite of what is expected happens, while coincidence occurs when two events appear to be related but are not.

Dramatic irony

Dramatic irony or tragic irony is a plot device used in fiction to create suspense or humor. It usually occurs when the audience knows something that one or more characters do not. As a result, the characters make poor decisions and face the consequences. In comedy, dramatic irony leads to misunderstandings and creates a comedic effect.

Dramatic irony example
In William Shakespeare’s play Othello, the plot is built around a dramatic irony because the audience knows something that the title character does not. The villain of the story, Iago, convinces Othello that his wife is cheating on him. As a result, Othello becomes consumed with jealousy and decides to murder her. However, the audience knows that she is, in fact, faithful to him. In this instance, dramatic irony is used to create tension and suspense.

What is the difference between irony and sarcasm?

The terms irony and sarcasm are often used interchangeably because both involve saying the opposite of what is true. However, there is a difference between them.

Sarcasm can only be expressed verbally. You can make a sarcastic remark, but an event cannot be sarcastic. The purpose of sarcasm is to be intentionally mean and point at another person’s faults (this often involves speaking ironically). Sarcasm can also be used to express frustration or anger.

In contrast, irony is a broader term and is not limited to verbal remarks; irony can be found in situations or actions. Also, irony is not limited to ridiculing someone or something.

In short, sarcasm is sometimes a form of irony, but not all irony is sarcastic.
Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, rhetorical devices, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Common mistakes

US vs UK

Rhetoric

Irregardless vs regardless

Burnt or burned

Situational irony

Lable or label

Dreamed or dreamt

Trope

Now a days or nowadays

Kneeled or knelt

Metaphor

Every time or everytime

Smelled or smelt

Consonance

Alot or a lot

Travelling or traveling

Rhyme


Frequently asked questions about irony

What is the difference between synecdoche and metaphor?

Socratic irony is a form of irony inspired by the Greek philosopher Socrates. By pretending to be ignorant and asking probing questions, Socrates tried to tease information out of his students.

By doing so, he exposed the errors and inconsistencies in their logic and beliefs, proving that they were, in fact, ignorant—thus, the irony.

What is an example of irony in literature?

An example of irony in literature can be found in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Cask of Amontillado.”

The reader knows that the main character, Montresor, wants to take revenge on and kill his friend, Fortunato, who is unaware of this. When Montresor is luring him into the catacombs, there is a discrepancy between how the reader and how Fortunato perceive the situation: the reader knows that Montresor intends to kill him there, while Fortunato believes that they are going to sample some wine. Therefore, the story relies on dramatic irony.

What is the difference between irony and satire?

Irony and satire are similar in that they both often have a humorous effect. However, they serve different purposes and have distinct characteristics.

Irony is a literary and rhetorical device that involves a contrast between what is expected or intended and what actually occurs. It is an indirect way to convey meaning (e.g., by saying one thing, but actually meaning the opposite). There are several types of irony and their purpose varies: irony can be used to create humor or tension or to introduce the element of surprise in a story.

In contrast, satire is a humoristic genre and literary device that often uses irony or exaggeration to make a point. The purpose is usually to poke fun at individuals or groups and to criticize social issues, often in order to bring about change. Satire is often used in political commentary.

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Kassiani

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.

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