Irony - Explore What It Is, Definition and Examples

Learning the figures of speech can help you make your writing a lot more interesting and descriptive. In this article, you will be introduced to irony, its meaning and definition, how it is formed and how it can be used. Also, check out the examples given for a clear idea of how irony works.

Table of Contents

What is Irony? – Meaning and Definition

Irony is a rhetorical device that is used to express an intended meaning by using language that conveys the opposite meaning when taken literally. The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines the term ‘irony’ as “the use of words that say the opposite of what you really mean, often as a joke and with a tone of voice that shows this”.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, irony is defined as “the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning”, and according to the Collins Dictionary, irony is “a subtle form of humour which involves saying things that you do not mean”. The Cambridge Dictionary defines irony as “the use of words that are the opposite of what you mean, as a way of being funny”.

The Different Types of Irony

Did you know that there are various types of irony? Well, if you did, great job! Those who did not know, here is a chance to learn what they are and the ways in which they can be used.

There are three main types of irony that can be employed when you are writing a short story, a play, an anecdote or even a novel. Take a look at each of the following.

  • Dramatic irony is the type in which one or more characters in a story or a play is given no idea of a very important piece of information that would alter their lives and also change the course of the plot completely. Dramatic irony keeps the readers excited and sustains the interest in the happenings of the story. It lets the audience sympathise for the characters in the story, instils fear and builds suspense. In simple terms, when dramatic irony is employed, the audience knows something that the characters have not yet found out or understood. William Shakespeare is known widely for the use of dramatic irony in most of his tragic plays. Christopher Marlowe, Jane Austen, Jonathan Swift and Thomas Hardy are some of the writers who made effective use of dramatic irony in their writings.
  • Situational irony is the one in which the events in the story or play give the readers a result that is different from what they had been expecting to occur. This type of irony puts the protagonist of the story/play in a situation that demands a heavy price in order to get to their goal. It also aids in creating a ‘twist’. Who doesn’t like a good twist, right? This situation would push the character to a whole new level. It can also be used to communicate an intended message or moral to the audience. O. Henry, Kate Chopin, Christopher Marlowe, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare and Guy de Maupassant are some of the writers who made good use of situational irony in their works.
  • Verbal irony is when the author has put the characters’ lines in such a way that the intended meaning is the exact opposite of what is being said. Unlike the other two types of irony, when verbal irony is used, the character knows the truth but uses irony intentionally in a sarcastic manner to reveal the hidden truth. Jonathan Swift, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allen Poe and George Bernard Shaw are known for the use of verbal irony in their works.

Why Use Irony?

There are specific reasons why authors make use of a particular rhetorical device in their writing. While some of it could be to make comparisons and indicate similarities, some others might to bring focus or create a humorous effect. Authors are seen using irony for some of the reasons given below:

  • The first reason behind using irony is to emphasise a point that requires attention or the one that indicates a noticeable change in the character or plot.
  • The next reason would be to make the readers pause for a second and think about what the author is actually trying to convey.
  • Another reason is to depict the variance between what is happening, how everything at the moment occurs and what had been expected of the characters or the plot.
  • Also, to induce a tone of sarcasm through the characters’ lines or the narrator’s description.

Above all this, the success of irony is achieved only when the target audience is able to realise the difference between what is being said and what is actually occurring.

Examples of Irony

Here are a few examples of irony for your reference.

Some Common Examples of Irony from Literature

Have a look at the following examples of the three types of irony from literature.

Examples of Dramatic Irony

  • In the play, ‘Othello’ by William Shakespeare, Iago tries to manipulate Othello into believing that he is an honest man.
  • “Othello: I think thou dost.

    And for I know thou ‘rt full of love and honesty

    And weigh’st thy words before thou giv’st them breath…”

  • William Shakespeare applies dramatic irony in the play ‘Macbeth’ as well. In the below lines, we see King Duncan expressing his absolute trust over Macbeth who would kill him.
  • “He was a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust”

  • In ‘Oedipus Rex’ by Sophocles, you can see Oedipus saying that he would not fail to make sure to find who the murderer of his father is.
  • “On these accounts I, as for my own father,

    Will fight this fight, and follow out every clue,

    Seeking to seize the author of his murder.”

Examples of Situational Irony

  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge uses situational irony in his poem, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ in the lines,
  • “Water, water, every where,

    Nor any drop to drink.”

  • In William Shakespeare’s play, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, you can see a great use of situational irony in the scene where Romeo finds Juliet lying as if dead and so kills himself. He says,
  • “O my love, my wife! Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath, Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty.”

    Juliet is seen waking up later to see that Romeo had killed himself, and so kills herself too.

  • ‘The Gift of the Magi’ by O. Henry has an apt example of situational irony. The characters in the story – the husband and wife are seen to sell off their priced possessions in order to get the other a gift they would love. They, however, end up buying gifts that both of them can no longer use.

Examples of Verbal Irony

  • The moment anyone thinks of verbal irony, the first example that comes to mind would be Antony’s speech about Brutus being an honourable man in the play, ‘Julius Caesar’ by William Shakespeare. He is seen to describe all the good that Caesar did and establish that in spite of all that, Antony said that Caesar was ambitious and that he was an honourable man. This is done for quite some time finally letting the audience understand who was in fact behind the death of Julius Caesar.
  • “I thrice presented him a kingly crown,

    Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?

    Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;

    And, sure, he is an honourable man.”

  • In the novel, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen, Darcy’s first impression of Elizabeth Bennet was contrary to the final outcome, hence making it an instance of verbal irony. He says, “She is tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt me”, but ends up loving and marrying her in the end.
  • In the play, ‘Pygmalion’ by George Bernard Shaw, you can see Mrs. Higgins using verbal irony to reach to Prof. Higgins’ attitude and arrogance towards Eliza.
  • Higgins: ‘Don’t you dare try this game on me. I taught it to you; and it doesn’t take me in. Get up and come home; and don’t be a fool.”

    Mrs. Higgins: ‘Very nicely put, indeed, Henry. No woman could resist such an invitation.”

Some Examples of Irony from Movies and TV Series

To make learning irony a little more fun, here are a few examples of irony in some of the most-watched movies and TV series. Check out the examples below and try to analyse if you were able to see the irony in it when you watched the movie/TV series.

  • In the movie Maleficent, you see Aurora going back to find Maleficent, the witch who cursed her when she was born, and developing a loving relationship with her. She, however, leaves her to go see her father and ends up in the dungeon pricking her finger on the needle and falling to eternal sleep, thereby fulfilling the curse. The whole time, the audience knows about all this and all of these events can be said to bring the effect of dramatic irony in the movie.
  • Snow White is seen taking the apple that would put her into a deep sleep as the Wicked Stepmother had cursed in the movie, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. It is an example of dramatic irony because the audience knows all along that the apple was the cursed apple and what it would do to Snow White.
  • In ‘Aladdin’, the title character is given an opportunity to make three wishes and he is found wishing to be a prince and have all the riches in the world in order to marry Jasmine, the princess. However, his wish turns out to be ironic because the princess does not seem to be in any way attracted to him because of the riches and does not want to marry him.
  • In ‘F.R.I.E.N.D.S.’, the TV Series, Rachel is seen quitting her job as a waitress as she was fed up of serving coffee. Once she quits, she is so sure she does not have to serve coffee ever again. It becomes ironic when she gets a job in a field of her liking and all she has to do is serve coffee.

Frequently Asked Questions on Irony

What is irony?

Irony is a rhetorical device that is used to express an intended meaning by using language that conveys the opposite meaning when taken literally.

What is the definition of irony?

The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines the term ‘irony’ as “the use of words that say the opposite of what you really mean, often as a joke and with a tone of voice that shows this”. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, irony is defined as “the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning”, and according to the Collins Dictionary, irony is “a subtle form of humour which involves saying things that you do not mean”. The Cambridge Dictionary defines irony as “the use of words that are the opposite of what you mean, as a way of being funny”.

What are the types of irony?

There are three main types of irony and they are:

  • Dramatic irony
  • Situational irony
  • Verbal irony

Give some examples of irony.

Given below are a few examples of irony that you can refer to.

  • “On these accounts I, as for my own father,
  • Will fight this fight, and follow out every clue,

    Seeking to seize the author of his murder.” ( ‘Oedipus Rex’ by Sophocles)

  • “I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
  • Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?

    Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;

    And, sure, he is an honourable man.” (‘Julius Caesar’ by William Shakespeare)

  • “She is tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt me.” (‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen)
  • “O my love, my wife! Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath, Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty.” (‘Romeo and Juliet’ by William Shakespeare)
  • “He was a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust.” (‘Macbeth’ by William Shakespeare)