Isn’t it ironic? How to use the forms of irony

3 min read

Alanis Morissette might have crooned about irony, but the ironic thing is that those situations in the song weren't actually ironic. Rain on your wedding day? That's a coincidence. Meeting the man of your dreams and his beautiful wife? That’s just unfortunate. So, what is irony? It takes many forms. Some forms of irony are funny, while others typically appear in a tragic drama. Each of the three main types of irony applies to different scenarios. Do you know when and how to use them all?

Verbal irony

Verbal irony comes across in spoken rather than written language. There are actually four types of verbal irony to make it even more complicated.

Sarcasm is a mocking form of verbal irony used to make fun of something by using what could otherwise be interpreted as a positive or innocent statement. With sarcasm, it’s all about tone. If you speak sarcastically to someone you're not close to, you run the risk that it'll be misunderstood and misinterpreted. You could find yourself in big trouble if you toss a sarcastic remark at your boss.

Understatement and overstatement go hand in hand, but are opposites. When you understate something, you’re downplaying the severity of it. An example is if you don’t speak to your parents, but you tell someone, “My parents and I don’t have the best relationship.” Conversely, if you have a celebrity crush, you might overstate by saying, “I would die for him.” You probably wouldn’t, but you want the person you’re speaking with to know that you really (really) like Chris Hemsworth.

Socratic irony is a common tactic used by parents and law enforcement. Do you already know the answer? Are you trying to catch someone in a lie? See where we’re going? It’s a method of asking questions you already know the answer to in order to hear the other person admit to it — like when your wife knows you ate her dessert.

Dramatic irony

Dramatic irony takes place in storytelling. This form of irony originated on the stage, but you can also find it in film. Dramatic irony is used in scenes where you, as an audience member, understand more about the story or situation than the characters in the production.

Dramatic irony usually happens in three stages:

  • Preparation: When the audience learns information that the characters don’t know yet.
  • Suspension: The time from when the audience learns the information until the characters find out the information.
  • Resolution: The truth comes out and the characters experience the consequences.

Tragic irony is a special form of dramatic irony that applies only to tragic productions. Think of “Romeo and Juliet.” If Romeo had known that Juliet wasn’t really dead before he killed himself, it wouldn't be tragic irony.

Situational irony

Situational irony is the opposite of dramatic irony. Situational irony, as a literary device, falls into four different categories.

You might know cosmic irony as “divine intervention,” but it’s usually not in a good way. The characters see a god or deity intervene in their situation intending to improve it, but things still go horribly awry.

With poetic irony, outside forces seem to intervene, much like with cosmic irony. The situation seems to resolve favorably — often for someone who shouldn’t have gotten that happy ending. The catch is that there’s a subtle karmic twist that gives the wrongdoer what he or she deserves.

If you’ve watched a film based around a character’s ignorance, you’ve witnessed structural irony at work. Structural irony is a discrepancy between the main character’s understanding and the reality around them.

While it’s more fun to see historical irony in fiction, it happens in real life too. While an idea might seem perfect when you think of it, you find out later that it didn’t work the way you’d hoped and actually created a new problem. Isn’t it ironic? Not really, but now you understand what is ironic.

Photo credit: Denise Jans/ Unsplash

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