A Reader's Guide to Irony

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

Irony, the art of saying one thing but meaning something else. There are times in our reading where we are active participants, and irony is one example. We search for truth undaunted by faux attempts to throw us off track. We are not dunces that take everything at face value. Irony is a writing tool that shows us just how engaged we are with the author in an exercise where we will come to a true understanding of what he wrote. His mind works on our mind toward some planned effect.

Robert A. Harris’ Take on Irony

According to Harris in Writing with Clarity and Style, irony “involves a statement whose hidden meaning is different from its surface or apparent meaning.” He goes on to say, “often, the ironic or implied meaning is the opposite of the literal meaning.” Another form of irony occurs when a statement reflects the opposite of what the reader might reasonably expect under the circumstances. Here’s an example from Harris’ book: “The food here is terrible, and the portions are so small.” Why do we care how small the portions are if the food is terrible? The writer has emphasized his point, simply because we’re asking that question.

Why Do Writers Use Irony?

The writer wants to take us on this ironic journey because in doing so he gets to make his point more forcefully. As readers, we want to be able to grasp the author’s true meaning, but we also want to be included in the crowd that gets the joke. Irony can be traced to Greek tragedy. In Greek tragedies, words or actions are clear to the audience or reader, but may be unknown to the character. In this way, the audience actually knows more about the scene than the character does.

The author emphasizes his point by making us work for a predetermined result. When we have that eureka moment, the moment when we see the through the surface meaning, we feel proud of ourselves and we’re more willing to accept the point the author’s made. We feel smart.

Why Do Readers Welcome the Deception?

This gap, between what the reader knows and what the character knows, or between what the author intends and what he actually wrote is where a discerning reader can shine. It’s where a reader can practice getting at meaning without taking everything at face value. Readers welcome challenges.

Irony is also welcome because it is entertaining. We feel as though we know more than a character or than a reader that takes things at face value. Irony is rarely bland writing and is often more akin to metaphor in that it is writing that says one thing but means another, although it reaches that dual meaning through a negative assertion and not a positive one.

The Dangers of Irony

1. It is dangerous to believe that all instances of hidden meaning will be obvious. With irony, the writer wants us to get the real meaning because he wants to emphasize his point. There will be times, however, when the author wants us to struggle with what he intends so that, in the struggle, we can ask ourselves questions we might not ever ask. One danger, therefore, is that we miss the irony because it was too subtle, too hidden.

2. Overuse of irony can result in over emphasis, like a book that has too much highlighted material. Overuse can also result in our senses being dulled to more subtle, more ambiguous writing tools. Irony makes us lazy and has us assume that all deception by the author will be laid out on a platter for our feasting. Some deception is not so intentional or so blatant and we must, as readers, keep our guard up for other kinds of mild deception as well.

3. David Foster Wallace once criticized irony, “entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing….[I]rony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.” Wallace saw irony as an exclusively destructive force that doesn’t offer an alternative, doesn’t bother to build anything up to stand in the place of the idea it criticized.

For examples of irony galore you can visit isitironic.com. They even give allow you to submit your own “ironic” situation to have it tested against an audience that will vote on whether you’ve found true irony.

Here’s one of my favorite examples from the site:  “Is it ironic that…if you have a phobia of longs words you have to tell people that you have Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia?” User votes rank this one as 91% ironic.

What are some examples of irony you’ve seen in your reading? Are you a fan of ironic writing?

Photo credit: By istolethetv.


  1. Anjali

    Irony is hard to express: one man’s irony could be another’s statement of fact, but we all rush to use the phrase ‘so ironic’ in our speech. Isn’t that ironic?

  2. Read.Learn.Write

    A confession, I wrote this post to try to understand irony a bit better myself. So, I agree wholeheartedly that irony is a tough nut to crack.

    1. Anjali

      I guess the writer has to be sincere in his use of irony. Jonathan Swift is a master satirist, and uses irony to his advantage, but John Donne’s poems are much more subtle in their use of irony.

  3. Chris

    Hmmmm. I love irony. My difficulty comes in drawing the line between sarcasm and irony. Because in my opinion they’re not quite the same thing.

    1. Anita

      That’s what I was thinking – sarcasm and irony are not the same thing. But the opening definition of irony sounds a lot like the definition of sarcasm.

      A good post to ponder.
      (Are you writing about alliteration any time soon?)

      1. Read.Learn.Write

        I think there’s overlap, but I agree they aren’t the same. Whether the ironic statement is sarcasm would depend on the context and potentially on the overall tone? What do y’all think?

        No plans for an alliteration post, but if you’d like to pitch it shoot me an email.

        Thanks for reading.

        1. Read.Learn.Write

          Definition of sarcasm from dictionary.com:
          1. harsh or bitter derision or irony.
          2.a sharply ironical taunt; sneering or cutting remark: a review full of sarcasms.

          So the usage gurus see some overlap as well. They seem to suggest that if irony is going to be sarcasm it has to be written or said with a harsh, bitter, or sharp tone.

  4. Anita

    Bret Lott’s essay on irony in “Before We Get Started” (p. 149) weaves together thoughts on irony, the law of diminishing returns, writing from the heart and hope. An excellent read. (I read it this morning and it reminded me of this discussion.)

    1. Brandon Monk

      Nice. I will check it out. Thanks for the pointer.

  5. Brandon Monk

    Audible has a series called The Art of Reading which I’ve been listening to in bits and pieces and Professor Sturgin suggests sarcasm can, in certain situations, be a form of irony–a small sub-set under the irony umbrella. I believe it’s covered in the 7th lecture here: http://www.thegreatcourses.com/tgc/courses/course_detail.aspx?cid=2198. His discussion reminded me of this thread and I thought this would be a good additional resource for anyone still struggling with the idea of irony.

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