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How to Use Irony in the English Language

4 min read
23 July, 2014
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English speakers love to use irony, but do you know how to use irony correctly? It’s one of the most popular of our linguistic tricks, and we often use it to make a point, make fun of something, or just to make our friends laugh.
However, irony is often misunderstood by both native speakers and language learners. Let’s look at the standard definition of the word ‘irony’, before talking about some different types and uses.

Definition: Irony (noun)
The use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of what is actually said; “Wow, I just LOVE getting paper cuts at work.”

When used in this way, irony is a powerful tool that we can use to express a great range of different emotions. In this case, the ironic comment emphasizes the speaker’s annoyance.


Types of irony: Art and dramatic irony in Romeo and Juliet 

Ironic sentences don’t simply communicate the opposite of what is said – they often add an extra level of emphasis or depth of meaning to a statement. A good example of this is when irony is used in art.

In books, movies, plays, poems and paintings, artists can use different types of irony to make powerful or emotional statements. The best known of these is dramatic irony, which occurs when the audience knows something that the characters do not.

A great example of dramatic irony is in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo believes that Juliet is dead, but the audience knows that she has only drunk a sleeping potion.

Romeo and Juliet also contains an example of another type of irony; tragic irony. Tragic irony occurs when the audience knows of an impending tragedy or catastrophe, but characters are not aware. In Romeo and Juliet, this happens right at the start of the play, when the narrator explains that both characters will die at the end.


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How to use Situational irony

Situational irony is the most complex type of irony and is often misunderstood.
Canadian pop singer Alanis Morrissette famously confused the meaning of the term in her 1995 song Ironic:

“It’s like rain on your wedding day… Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?”

Actually no Alanis, it’s not. You don't know how to use irony correctly. 

Situational irony occurs only when the outcome of an action or situation directly contradicts what is expected by the people carrying out the action. For example, a weatherman caught in a flash flood is an ironic situation – the weatherman is expected to be able to predict such things! For anyone else caught in the flood however, the situation is not ironic, just unfortunate.


How to use irony with Sarcasm

Sarcasm is a type of irony. It is when the meaning of a sentence is the opposite of what is spoken. However, sarcastic remarks are ironic sentences that are used only to criticize, insult or tease somebody else. Be careful when using sarcasm, you can really hurt someone’s feelings with a badly-worded sarcastic remark! Maybe test how to use irony and sarcasm with a few close friends first. 

Definition: Sarcasm
A form of irony intended to tease, criticize or insult; “Did you think of that idea ALL by yourself? We should get you a MEDAL.”


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