What Is Irony? (With Examples)

By Guest Author

what is ironyRecently I was walking and talking with my co-worker, who happens to be a freelance writer and aspiring journalist. We were talking about the fact that our employers were providing us with a Thanksgiving lunch the day after Thanksgiving, and she said, “It’s so ironic!’’ – all emphasis and drawing-out of syllables possible used on the last word.

This is a smart girl I’m talking about. She’s a college graduate and has done her fair share of writing and reporting. And even so, she doesn’t know the definition of irony.

Merriam-Webster defines irony as:

1: a pretense of ignorance and of willingness to learn from another assumed in order to make the other’s false conceptions conspicuous by adroit questioning —called also Socratic irony

2: a) the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning
b) a usually humorous or sardonic literary style or form characterized by irony
c) an ironic expression or utterance

3: a) : incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result; an event or result marked by such incongruity
b) incongruity between a situation developed in a drama and the accompanying words or actions that is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play —called also dramatic irony, tragic irony

A simple way of putting it is that irony usually signals a difference between the appearance of things and reality. For instance, here is how Wikipedia defines it: “Ironic statements (verbal irony) often convey a meaning exactly opposite from their literal meaning. In ironic situations (situational irony), actions often have an effect exactly opposite from what is intended.”

Confusion is such that there is even a website, IsItIronic.com, where you can post your own question about whether or not something is ironic. Readers will cast their own vote – you can see the percentages of the votes – and the website will provide the final yes or no verdict.

Here are some examples of irony (or the lack of):

Is it ironic that I posted a video about how boring and useless Facebook is on Facebook?
Reader’s Verdict: 93% NOT IRONIC; 7% IRONIC. Final Verdict: NOT IRONIC.

Is it ironic that the name of Britain’s biggest dog (until it died recently) was Tiny?
Reader’s Verdict: 75% IRONIC; 25% NOT IRONIC. Final Verdict: IRONIC.

Is it ironic that I can’t go to church because I have a theology test to study for?
Reader’s Verdict: 95% NOT IRONIC; 5% IRONIC. Final Verdict: NOT IRONIC.

Is it ironic that someone steps into a puddle and you make fun of them… and the next thing you know – YOU step in one!?
Reader’s Verdict: 94% IRONIC; 6% NOT IRONIC. Final Verdict: IRONIC.

Has Alanis Morissette spoiled irony for us forever? Perhaps my generation is just in recovery from her 1995 lyrics. What do you think – do you understand the meaning of irony? Do people around you?

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197 Responses to “What Is Irony? (With Examples)”

  • Jean Allen

    What is wrong with this statement? It should just jump right off the page and bite. Y’all made my day! I’m sure the author will recognize:
    “I agree with the person who said irony is in the same line as sarcasm, but usually refers to events that happen or should of happened as opposed to linguistical usage.”
    Please, don’t anyone get your sphincter muscle all twisted. I’m just teasing. Imagine my surprise when I, an uneducated high school graduate, caught this among all this wisdom from college-trained professionals !

  • Cate

    This thread had me laughing so hard (I love you guys and all of your opinions)! I think the struggle is that people, and all forms of modern media, have used the word so loosely for so long, that almost everyone is thoroughly confused. Adding to the confusion, people start using the word ironic as if it’s synonymous with words like sarcasm and coincidence, but it’s not. And don’t even get me started on Alanis Morrisette and her brilliant lyrics…yeah, that was a *sarcastic* statement!

    As a long-time English professor and published writer and editor, I have a few thoughts on the topic and hope that they help anyone who is actually here looking for answers, not arguments. Again, these statements are based on the old-fashioned literal and technical English terminology and understanding, not the modern understanding that suits the masses.

    Irony certainly does include the incongruity between the actual result of an event and the expected result, meaning that things turned out differently than expected…BUT the true meaning of irony includes real cause and effect. Otherwise, it is just coincidence. Let’s use Alanis Morisette’s song as our example: If a man wins the lottery and then dies the next day, that is just an unfortunate COINCIDENCE. These two events coincidentally occurred, one right after the other, and led to an unfortunate result: death. Winning the lottery didn’t cause his death, right? It’s not ironic, it’s coincidence.

    Now, if that man played the lottery with the intent of winning and becoming rich and finding true friendship and happiness, and then he actually won the lottery and all of his friends begged and borrowed and made his life miserable…now THAT WOULD BE IRONIC. Winning the lottery was supposed to lead to his ultimate happiness, but the effect was actually nothing but misery. And that is true irony.

    Another part of her song will help clarify even more: rain on your wedding day. Is that irony? No, that is coincidence. It coincidentally rained on your wedding day, because weather can be unpredictable.

    Is having Thanksgiving lunch the day after Thanksgiving ironic? No, it’s just a decision made by the company owner because Thanksgiving day was a holiday and no one was at work. There’s no irony, there’s no cause and effect.

    Is creating a video about how boring and useless Facebook is and then posting it on Facebook ironic? Not at all. There’s no irony, there’s no incongruity between what you EXPECTED TO HAPPEN and what ACTUALLY HAPPENED based on cause and effect.

    If you’re ever curious about what true irony is, just ask yourself if the series of events happened coincidentally, or if something actually CAUSED A DIFFERENT OUTCOME than what was expected.

    Will everyone agree with me on this? Probably not, because the word ironic is used inappropriately by most people and in most professions on a daily basis, and everyone thinks that they know the true meaning. Is that ironic? Nope! Just coincidental!

  • Matt

    Procrastinators’ Meeting.

    I’m assuming there is more than one procrastinator. Also: not ironic.

  • Melissa

    I find it ironic that I come here to receive clarity regarding the use and definition of irony with other people that would seemingly like to do the same and then there are so many people not willing to accept the correct answer. HaHaHa :’)

  • Graham

    Would this class as irony? Your football team gets a penalty. Convinced that your teams regular taker will miss, you take it yourself and miss anyway

  • Paulah May

    irony is the opposite of wrinkly.

  • Mike

    The dictionary has: incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result.

    I think that’s the key, the incongruity. For example:

    A dog-catcher being hit by a truck hauling furniture is not ironic, just unfortunate.

    A dog-catcher being hit by a truck that is taking dogs to a local pet shop is closer to ironic, while also unfortunate.

    It’s the humorous aspect that I think some may not grasp. Irony isn’t simply a matter of misfortune. It is a misfortune that is incongruous, and therefore has a twinge of humor to it. The Far Side comic strip was full of irony, and some people ‘got it,’ while others did not. It’s the whole Coyote/Roadrunner scenario. It’s a bitter-sweet sort of thing.

  • Deborah Johnson

    Legal slavery within a free country is ironic

  • Vid

    Wow… a lot of ‘jibber jabber’ from a lot of brainiacs… the history of irony and and different types of irony… how people don’t understand it… and people trying to explain what it is…

    that last post….

    “I guess sardonically typical works, though it doesn’t flow well implying that it is an undesired outcome, but did not hold previous expectation for the outcome.”

    What?

    Use it in a sentence… give us an example… please.

  • Sephor

    After reading all of the comments, I am so confused.

  • Sinvanor

    I think irony has come to mean this.
    “Coincidence or events that happen in correlation to the least desired results or least expected.” (Feel free to change that around anyway you want to make it make more sense. I’m by no means an expert on coming up with concise definitions or indeed explaining what I mean through just words instead of direct examples.)
    Meaning, rain on your wedding day if you wanted it to be sunny or it was supposed to be sunny, would fit in this description.
    The irony implied not needing to be directly opposite or the worst possible thing, but still an undesired outcome.

    There should just be a new term that means that if ironic is technically incorrect that goes in the vein of the term “That figures” used sardonically.

    The one that confused me the most was the paying for a bus that you find out was actually free. That seems like irony, but I would rather know if there is a proper term for that phenomenon.

    I agree with the person who said irony is in the same line as sarcasm, but usually refers to events that happen or should of happened as opposed to linguistical usage.

    Overall I would say irony has to do with expectation vs the opposite or something undesired happening instead.
    It’s usually a negative thing that either infuriates or makes someone think sarcastically how good it is to of happened.
    Someone pointed out that a traffic jam when already late doesn’t work because you did not expect there to be one. There was no expectation that the road would be clear, but it does go into the realm of “it figures” thinking, which I insist needs a term by itself. Because saying “It was so it figures that a traffic jam happened when I was already late.” just doesn’t work. People instead want to use “It was so ironic that a traffic jam happened when I was already late.” mostly because they don’t know what to use.
    I guess sardonically typical works, though it doesn’t flow well implying that it is an undesired outcome, but did not hold previous expectation for the outcome.

    Grrr, if anyone thinks of a good term, let me know. It’s annoying to be using words wrong that way, even if language is evolving and fluid, it sucks when meanings change due to a misunderstanding outright rather then morphing overtime.

  • Donny Ray

    Irony is simply “SARCASTIC HUMOR.” Think about it…the Facebook comment at the top is meant to be funny. This type of stuff is in practically every TVshow we watch…they’re filled with it and we eat it up. Not all Irony is funny to people thus taking the lower % on the “POPULAR SCALE RATIO”…but to be honest if there wasn’t any ever opposed life wouldn’t be as much fun….Ironically irony is why you are…who you are.

  • Spencer Havens

    If irony can be the misuse of a word for something other than its literal meaning, then doesn’t misusing irony make it ironic? I mean if you use the word irony to mean something other then it should, at that point doesn’t the word itself become ironic? So isn’t it difficult to actually misuse the word irony without making a conscious effort to?

  • Rowan

    Okay, I hope someone has mentioned this, but let’s clarify: Expecting one outcome and having the opposite is ironic, but things can also be ironic if they do not fit that definition. There is several types of irony. Verbal, situational, and dramatic. The definition I mentioned regarding the outcome was for situational irony. Verbal irony is meaning the opposite of what you say. This on many occasions can be sarcasm, however, some sarcasm is not verbally ironic. Dramatic irony is (loosely) when the audience knows more than the character. Using some examples I’ve seen here, the Hamlet scene, if the audience knew about his killing the wrong person, would be dramatic irony. It could be situationally ironic, I do not know because I have yet to read Hamlet. Saying the weather is nice, when it is not, is verbal irony because you are meaning that it is the opposite. The puddle example was indeed a coincidence, and had hardly anything to do with expectations, so like many assumed, it was not situational irony. I have heard about another type of irony, however, I do not know enough about it to teach the ignorant commenters. I only intend to point out that people are not realizing there are multiple types of irony, and are defining it by one definition.

  • Kelly Greene

    I came on this site to get a better idea for a way to best articulate the definition of “irony”; and, lol, there are nearly 3 years of explanations. Irony is something I can spot alright (I think), but cannot explain. I read the book of Esther during the feast of Purim and I believe I definitely identified some examples of irony. If anyone reads this blog to the end ever again with hopes of trying to better understand “irony”, then my “labor” is not in vain.
    In the book of Esther, an evil character, Haman, was summoned by the Persian King who wanted advice on how to honor someone who’d saved his life. He said to Haman, “What should be done for the man the king wishes to honor?” Haman, thinking that he, himself, was the “man” that the king wished to honor, advised the king to clothe this honoree with his own kingly robes and parade him through the square on the royal horse. The king approved his suggestion, and ordered him to do all that he described; only it was for another character, Mordecai. This story is wrought with irony. First, Haman was summoned by the king when he was already on his way to see him in order to persuade him that this Mordecai (someone who’d saved the king’s life earlier in this story) be hanged on a gallows that he (Haman) had built especially for this purpose. Why? Because Mordecai refused to bow to him. Also ironic, is that Mordecai was not only the man whom the king wished to honor, but he was also the cousin of Esther, Queen of Persia, whom he raised from her early childhood. In the end, Haman was hanged on the gallows he built for Mordecai.

  • Brandon Burt

    As I recall, “What is irony?” became a popular question in the late 1980s and early ’90s. It had something to do with Generation X’s struggle to define itself in spite of commercial marketing demographics and in opposition to Baby Boomers. All at once, the particular and characteristic mode of communication favored by so-called Gen-X’ers was labeled “ironic.”

    Now, those in this cohort did tend to loathe (or fear) earnestness. This fear of abject sincerity may have stemmed from childhoods steeped in emotionally manipulative but well-meaning educational and commercial campaigns. Whatever the reason, an early cynicism developed among this cohort, and its members discovered that the easiest, most risk-free way to communicate with one another was via sarcasm.

    Over a few years, a sort of code was developed for communicating whole sets of competing ideas and philosophies. It was a kind of jargon or slang, but it didn’t fit earlier “teen slang” models, because it was filled with metaphor and relied on a shared set of common experiences that seemed obscure or even threatening to media professionals (who were a bit older, and therefore excluded).

    For the lack of a better term, these media professionals labeled the Gen-X mode of communication as “ironic.” And so, for a few years, anytime anybody would say something Gen-X-ey, they’d laugh about how “ironic” it was. (“Have you read Douglas Coupland’s new novel? It’s so ironic!”) And thus the word “ironic” lost its meaning.

    But then good people stepped in and drew our attention to the fact that “irony” has a specific meaning, going back to Greek theater and philosophy, and that there’s a very specific and restrictive definition of what constitutes it. So we had to start paying attention to what is, and what isn’t, ironic.

    Of course, all this happened long before social media. In fact, the Internet was still in its relative infancy. But still, I think this is why the “What Is Irony” website could continue to fulfill a very valuable service for years to come — at least until the last remaining members of Generation X die off (probably much to the relief of Millenials).

  • Bree

    It’s funny, I mean, IRONIC that there are 10000’s of ironic events that occur every day and yet there’s not 1 simple explanation that can define what ‘ironic’ actually is…
    Describing irony so that it makes complete sense by stating 2 contradicting facts, that don’t actually describe a thing…?

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