What Best Describes Irony?

In its most basic sense, irony is when what might be expected and what actually occurs are incongruent. This definition, however, covers a wide range of possibilities. It is often more helpful to look at specific types of irony and examples of those types. Most people gain a much clearer understanding of ironic concepts once types and examples of irony are presented. Knowledge of irony in its different manifestations can help people think more critically when encountering its various uses.

Situational Irony
Actions with expected outcomes can produce ironic situations.

Situational irony occurs when someone's actions place him in a situation that is the opposite of what was intended or expected. Situational irony describes the situation of a safe-cracker who breaches a vault and stands inside admiring all the money he's about to steal. He hears the creak of hinges and looks over his shoulder as the vault door swings shut, sealing him in. The irony is that his expertise in breaking in has actually imprisoned him.

Verbal Irony
Speech can produce irony.

Verbal irony exists when what is said has a meaning in addition to or in direct opposition to its literal meaning. Verbal irony arises in the case of a teacher who doesn't realize that the student who just received an A on her spelling test is on the cusp of becoming a major music star. The teacher, indicating the test, says, "You rock!" In the speech context, the teacher means that the student did well. The irony is that, unknown to the teacher, the student also "rocks" in the musical sense of the word. In literature, verbal irony can accentuate drama as well as comedy, and it occurs heavily in satire.

Dramatic Irony
Dramatic irony intensifies mood.

Dramatic irony is frequently found in literature and drama. Dramatic irony is simply when the reader or audience knows something the character or characters do not know. The audience's knowledge heightens the tension in works of comedy or tragedy. In "Romeo and Juliet," dramatic irony plays a key role when Romeo shows up to the Capulet tomb believing that Juliet lies dead within. The audience knows she is not dead, so Romeo's poisoning of himself has a more intense dramatic effect.

Socratic Irony
Irony can manipulate debate.

In modern society, Socratic irony may come across as more passive-aggressive than other ironies. With Socratic irony, a questioner adopts a facade of innocence and ignorance to ask seemingly simplistic questions, with the goal of leading a person to conclusions that display his or her own ignorance. For example, if someone were to contend, "Gun control will lessen violence," the Socratic questioner might respond, "Then guns cause violence?" This leaves the speaker with few options that do not detract from his or her main point. A danger of attempting to use Socratic irony is that listeners often point out its passive-aggressive tone, which can damage the user's credibility.

  • The Oxford Companion to the English Language; ed. Tom McArthur
  • Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, 5th ed.; Janet Burroway
  • The American Heritage College Dictionary: Irony
About the Author

William Martin has earned degrees in English/language arts and education. His background includes teaching reading and writing, literature analysis, arts and culture, outdoor recreation, home repair and improvement. His first short story was published as a junior in high school; more years ago than he'd probably care to admit.

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