What is irony?

Over time many people have argued about irony. Many people believe irony is something different from what it was before.

There are many different types of irony.

Verbal (spoken) irony

This irony is very close to sarcasm. It is saying one thing, but actually deliberately meaning a very different, even opposite meaning.

Verbal irony has become one of the most confused areas of English. It is different from sarcasm because sarcasm (although it can be funny) is used to belittle others.

Verbal irony can often work between two people who are both saying exactly opposite things to what they mean, both understanding the true meaning, and therefore holding a conversation.


(Dave gives Paul a doll for his birthday, knowing that Paul does not want a doll)

Paul: Wow, a doll. Great.
Dave: Yes, I know how much you like dolls.
Paul: And look: it comes with its own hair brush. This is like a dream come true.

(Dave wakes up to see it is raining for the 5th day in a row)

Dave: Ah, another beautiful day. The weather here reminds me of my trip to Tahiti.

Irony of fate (‘cosmic irony’)

this irony is when fate (or gods) are creating situations in which human actions in trying to make things better actually create sadness or the opposite effect.


In an O. Henry story, a poor couple decide to give each other gifts. The wife decides to cut her beautiful hair, selling it so she can buy a chain for her husband’s watch. However, when she gives him the gift she finds the husband has sold the watch in order to buy a comb for his wife’s hair.

(if the two had done this without agreeing on buying gifts, it would be only coincidence. The irony is that they chose to buy gifts to make each other happy, but their actions have only made it worse)

In Aesop’s fable, a wolf dresses as a sheep in order to be amongst the sheep, allowing himself to not be seen by the shepherd. However, the shephard, happy the wolf has gone, decides he wants to cook a sheep and selects the wolf (dressed as the sheep) and cooks it.

(the choice the wolf made has worked out completely the opposite from what it wanted)

For his whole life Dave has been trying to get promoted. Finally, he decides on a plan that gets him a job in management. That week, however, the police investigate the company and decide to arrest all the management. The people who are in Dave’s old job take over running the company.

Socratic irony

this irony is used in arguments or competition when Person A pretends to not understand or lose, allowing Person B to confidently keep going, giving Person A more and more information until Person A finally has enough information to easily win.


Socratic irony was often used in the TV detective show ‘Columbo’. Detective Columbo would act like a man who didn’t know what was happening, allowing the person he believed the criminal to confidently keep giving clues and evidence. Finally (after using his famous phrase ‘oh, just one more thing…’) Columbo would then use everything the criminal had said and done to prove he was right and arrest the criminal.

(the irony being that Columbo knew who the criminal was, and the criminal – believing he didn’t – gives him everything he needs)

Socratic irony can be used well in arguments, and by reporters and politicians. By pretending to not understand they can ask for more information, all the time getting
the story or answer they truly want, or their opponent to say two things that contradict (are the opposite of) each other.

Comic Irony

This can be done by making a statement that seems to make sense, but as examples are given to prove it right, it actually becomes obvious that the opposite is actually the truth.


One example is the book ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen. The opening sentence says that all rich men are looking for a good wife, then tells a story of rich men that shows it is the women who are actually looking for the rich men.

A man tells another man his crumpled shirt looks nice (verbal irony or sarcasm). Man B says he thinks it looks crumpled. Person A says Person B doesn’t know the meaning of irony. Person B says he does, and goes home to iron his shirt.

(the irony being that Person B says he does, then does something that he thinks proves he does, but shows he doesn’t)

The comedy show Blackadder used comic irony. The character Baldrick would often have a ‘cunning plan’ that Blackadder would say was the stupidest idea he had ever heard. However, as events occur it is shown that the idea labelled stupid is actually the only idea that works.
For example: Baldrick says they can avoid fighting the Germans by pretending to be Italian chefs. Blackadder dismisses the idea, but his own plans don’t work. In the end
the idea dismissed as the worst idea ever actually is the idea that gets them out of fighting.

Dramatic Irony

This is used in literature and movies. The reader/viewer know something that the character does not, and watch as the character does exactly the opposite of what he/she should be doing.

Dramatic irony usually leads to an end point when the character slowly becomes aware of the truth.


In the film ‘North by Northwest’ the main characters do not know that the person they are chasing does not actually exist (the audience, however, does know this). The main character, Roger Thornhill, wants to find the mystery man so he can go back to his old comfortable life, but by chasing him actually puts himself in more danger. The audience watches, knowing that Thornhill is going the wrong way.

(the irony being that Thornhill’s search for a man who can take him out of danger puts him more in danger. If he did nothing, the danger would pass).

Horror movies often use very quick dramatic irony. A person trying to escape a killer decides to hide in a closet, unaware that is exactly where the killer is.

Tragic Irony

Tragic irony is like dramatic irony, with a character not seeing the mistakes they are making, but with a tragic (disasterous) ending.


Romeo and Juliet has tragic irony. The audience knows that Juliet is not dead, but Romeo does not. Romeo kills himself so he can be with Juliet in death, leaving Juliet alive whilst Romeo is dead. The audience watches knowing Romeo’s decisions are leading him to exactly the opposite end that he wants.

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles is another famous example of tragic irony. The orphan Oedipus does not know he is the king’s son. The king, meanwhile, has heard he is to be killed and disguises himself. Oedipus and the king meet, both unaware of who the other is, and after an argument Oedipus kills his father.
After this Oedipus then solves a great puzzle, and is rewarded by being allowed to marry the queen (his mother). Oedipus says he will find the man who killed the king.
The queen learns the truth, and kills herself. Finally, Oedipus learns the truth: it was he who killed the king, and he has now married his own mother and had two children. In despair, he blinds himself.

(The irony is that the audience knows what Oedipus has done, but he does not. Every action he takes – which he thinks is good – actually makes his life more tragic)

The Ironic Simile

Similes can be made ironic by using a simile that is often used to describe something to actually describe the opposite.

Ironic similes can be taken full circle so they actually describe the right thing, although by using something completely wrong.


this bed is as soft as a block of concrete.
this film is as fun as watching an autopsy.

this sight was as normal as seeing a seal on a bicycle, in a place where a seal on a bicycle is a very normal sight.